Starting the season off at home always gives your team a bit of an edge, to the point where you begin to second guess whether it's best for player evaluation. Seeing your players react to the struggle of a road trip is beneficial in a twisted sort of way; it requires a different mental state of mind, not to mention is more physically tiring.
Those who can survive the grind are more likely to be the ones that you'll lean on later in the season, so it's good to get a taste of it quickly. After a few weeks, the Marlies finally had that chance, with three games in three nights in small-town New York. Here's how they did:
Friday October 23rd: Toronto @ Rochester (8-2 Win)
The Marlies fired on all cylinders in the weekend's opening game, absolutely steamrolling the Buffalo Sabres affiliate. Once Richard Clune opened the scoring at the three-minute mark, Kasperi Kapanen and Justin Holl followed him up within the following four minutes, giving Toronto lots of time with a sizable lead. Cal O'Reilly put his team on the board midway through the opening period and Tim Schaller responded to Andrew Campbell's third goal of the season with one of his own at the game's midway point, but from there, Toronto put on cruise control.
William Nylander, Matt Frattin, Nikita Soshnikov, and Ryan Rupert all scored in the back half of the game to create a diverse scoresheet; a little over half the team had a goal, and only Sam Carrick and Rinat Valiev were held without a point.
Saturday October 24th: Toronto @ Binghamton (5-1 Loss)
If Friday was the Marlies at their best, Saturday was them at their worst. The team seemed unprepared, both for Binghamton's physicality and for a second game in a 24-hour span. Odd man rushes and breakaways were a frequent occurrence, and as such, there was plenty of conversion, Matt Puempel and Cole Schneider took the most advantage, combining on three efforts over the course of the game. Perhaps the only positive takeaway was Josh Leivo's goal; a wrister from the high slot that prevented the Marlies from being shut out.
Sunday October 25th: Toronto @ Lehigh Valley (3-1 Win)
The Marlies looked to end the weekend off on a high note, but if they were going to do it, they had to do it without their biggest names. On top of Byron Froese being up with the Leafs, Sheldon Keefe played mad scientist and scratched William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, TJ Brennan, Zach Hyman, and Viktor Loov. Keefe wanted a better look at his non-brand name core, while proving that nobody was safe from the rotation while the roster was full.
He got just what he was looking for, even if the game was only worth watching for the first twenty minutes. James Martin, a PTO signing, picked up an assist in his first game, on a play that set Frederik Gauthier up for his first goal of his AHL career. A few minutes later, Nikita Soshnikov banged in his second of the weekend by a hair, only to have Taylor Leier close the gap with a shorthanded goal.
Soshnikov wasn't through yet, though, and just 62 seconds later, used one of his trademark offensive zone cut-ins to give himself room to wire a wrist shot past Anthony Stolarz. This goal, just thirteen minutes into the game, proved to be the game's last, as the two sides converged into the neutral zone for the remainder.
Fancy Stats To Date
While Toronto's possession numbers dipped a little after this week, they actually find themselves higher in the rankings; presumably because less talented teams have regressed harder. Through seven games, the Marlies have put up an estimated 56.61 Fenwick Close Percentage, which is good for fourth highest in the AHL. It's also the highest of any team that's played six games, let alone the seven they've taken part in to date.
Further to the point, Toronto finds themselves 6th in shots per game (32.4), 8th in shots against (26.6), 10th in shooting percentage (10.62) and 20th in save percentage (90.3). This finally gives them an all situations PDO higher than 1000; the Rochester game made a huge difference in that regard.
Player of the Week
If you read the others things that I say that aren't on PPP (my condolences), then you already know that I've been singing the praises of Nikita Soshnikov lately, and I'm going to continue to do so today. The AHL rookie was lights out for the second weekend in a row, and this time, it turned into points. He was the only Marlies player to score more than one goal (3), tied for the team lead in points (4), had the highest plus/minus (+5), and took the second most shots (7). He showed a nose for the net, and repeatedly demonstrated how good he is at cutting towards the slot. Soshnikov could end up being this year's Byron Froese; a hidden in plain sight free wallet that adds useful depth to the organization.
Who's Hot, Who's Not?
Antoine Bibeau is hot. He didn't face a heck of a lot of action this weekend, with just 45 shots on goal coming his way over two games, but he was good when the team needed him to be, especially against the Phantoms. Of those shots, he stopped 42, good for a 0.933 SV%.
Rich Clune is hot. Clune has a stigma attached to him as an enforcer, but people forget that he's able to play the game too, especially at this level. He looked extremely mobile throughout the three games, and picked up multiple points on both Friday and Sunday. He also dropped the gloves with recent temporary (PTO) teammate Mark Fraser on Saturday.
Frederik Gauthier is warm enough. The goat probably benefited a bit from playing with Soshnikov and Clune this weekend, but he looked a little more in place, bringing his prowess at the faceoff dot and moving into whatever area his wingers needed him to be in. He picked up his first professional goal yesterday to go with his assist on Friday.
Frank Corrado is not. People questioned the legitimacy of his "conditioning stint" when the Leafs announced it last week, but at times he looked like a player who hasn't played a lot of hockey lately. He picked up an assist in his Marlies debut, but beyond that, made some positional mistakes that lead to a goal or two against.
Sam Carrick is not. It seems that slow starts have become a regular occurrence in Carrick's pro career. Even if he puts pucks on net, they just don't seem to go in for a few weeks. This weekend was no exception; he took six shots on goal, but ended up pointless through the three games.
Toronto is due for another three-game week this week, though this time, they don't all come in a 48-hour span. The Marlies return to Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday night to take on the Syracuse Crunch, play at home again on Friday against the Grand Rapids Griffins, before embarking on a three-week road trip, which includes a game on Sunday afternoon against Albany.
This should be an interesting trio of games. Syracuse (Tampa Bay) and Grand Rapids (Detroit) have been good teams for several years now, though both have started off slowly. Albany, on the other hand, has looked good despite a lack of top-end youth, as we saw last weekend. If Toronto can take advantage of home ice and grab the pair of weekday wins, they'll be in good shape.