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Baby Leafs at the Olympics: Day One Recap

Holmberg, Knies and Abruzzese all had strong debuts

Team USA Athlete Processing Ahead of Beijing 2022 Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOPC

After the wait and anticipation (for me anyways), the Baby Leafs at the Olympics made their debuts this morning. Here’s a quick recap of how Pontus Holmberg, Matthew Knies, Nick Abruzzese looked.

Team Sweden vs Team Latvia

Late last night and into the early morning today, Sweden played their first game against Latvia and won 3-2. Pontus Holmberg started the game lined up on the left wing for their second line, with former NHLer Lucas Wallmark at center.

I watched the first two periods before going to bed, and I recapped what I saw from Holmberg in the FTB. Katya added her observations in the comments as well. Holmberg had the primary assist on the opening goal, and was just a delight to watch — I’m sure he was for his coaches as well. He doesn’t have a great deal of skill, but he has a lot of “hockey IQ”. That’s a term that can get overused at times, but in this game what it means is he was able to anticipate how the play would develop so he could be in the right place at the right time. He made smart plays with and without the puck, even if they weren’t flashy. He just did the right things. He was very effective along the boards on the cycle, able to protect the puck from defenders until he had enough of an opening to make a play. He was used on the second powerplay unit and maybe for a bit during a longer penalty kill.

Holmberg finished the game with 13:26 of ice time, with the one assist and was a +1. Sweden played their top line and pairing heavily, and pretty even ice time outside of that. No one played less than 10 minutes. Sweden’s next game will come against Slovakia tomorrow.

Team USA vs Team China

Leafs fans had a bit of a treat this morning, after Team USA dominated China in an 8-0 win. The star of the show was Sean Farrell, who had a hat trick and five points. But Matthew Knies and Nick Abruzzese were also very good, and each had some points of their own. They also played mostly together on the second line, with second overall pick Matty Beniers as their centre. They had one even strength goal together, but they had a lot of good scoring chances otherwise.

Like Holmberg, Matthew Knies got his primary assist to open his team’s scoring. He made a power move to the net, got the puck back in the ensuing chaos in front and poked it to Brisson for the goal. Lovely, glorious chaos.

Knies finished with the one assist, six shots on net, and was +1 in 16:30 of ice time. He was used on the second powerplay unit, and on a few post-PK shifts for the USA he was sent out on their top line. Once he double shifted with his regular line after that top line stint. All of those six shots came in or around the net in dangerous areas, either from making power moves from the corner to the front of the net to cause more of that glorious chaos, picking up a rebound, or taking a pass in the slot from Beniers or Abruzzese.

He also tried, in this one game, the Michigan lacrosse goal at least once (maybe twice), and the Zegras-Michigan style alley oop assist from behind the net. None of the attempts worked, but man is he fun. Knies is like Holmberg in that he is smart and always max effort all the time, the difference that makes him a top prospect is Knies has a lot more skill to go with it. It’s an exciting package.

Nick Abruzzese had two points on the game, both primary assists that came off the rush. The first was on a line blender shift, where he set up Sean Farrell for his second goal. It was a simple little backhand to Farrell as they forced a turnover in the neutral zone and caught China on a 3 on 2.

His second assist was a little drop pass to Beniers off of a zone entry, which helped him also throw a bit of a pick and drawing two defenders to him, leaving Beniers wide open to walk in to the faceoff dot for the snipe. Knies had a nice screen on the play, though he didn’t get a point on the play.

Abruzzese finished with the two assists, two shots on goal and was +2 in 16:06 of ice time. He may not have been as flashy, in your face or dominant in all three zones as others in this game. But he was dangerous in the offensive zone. He was shifty enough to avoid getting pushed around or checked hard by a very physically aggressive Team China. And he was able to make a few plays in the offensive zone with the puck — his two shots were good ones, one set up by Knies. He also set up Beniers and Knies for some of their shots. It was a typical game for him, one where was able to play to his strengths as a playmaker.

Knies and Abruzzese will next play against Team Canada. It will start at 11:10 pm EST on Friday the 11th. That should be a much tougher test.

Other Olympic & Leafs Prospect News

Josh Ho Sang also played earlier this morning, as Canada beat Germany 5-1. I didn’t watch any of the game because it was playing the same time as the USA-China game. He started on the top line right wing, and had two shots on net in 15:22 of ice time.

The other prospect news we got this morning was the frustrating announcement from Rodion Amirov’s KHL coach:

Amirov has barely played this year. Between a significant shoulder injury, setback as he tried to return once, getting COVID right after returning again, and since then getting a lot of vague but worrisome quotes from the Leafs and now Salavat about this mysterious nagging injury issue. Is it the same shoulder injury still bothering him? Something new? Long COVID? Who can say!

It’s basically a lost season for one of our top prospects, which is extremely sad and frustrating.

So mostly good, but one big sad from the Baby Leafs today.