This Marlies snapped a seven-game losing streak on Sunday, defeating the Belleville Senators 6-2 in a game with a lot of hitting, fights, and penalties.
Clearly one between two rival teams that do not like each other, with the added bonus that the Senators are desperate for wins to make the playoffs and it became clear in the third period the Marlies would deny it to them, at least for this game.
A few quick game highlights before I get to the big story of the game were earned by two of the Newfoundland Growlers called up to Toronto to fill in for injuries and the slots of Marlies players called up to the Leafs.
The first is Zach O'Brien, a native of St. John's, he's played with the Growlers since their first season and has 82 points in 59 games this season, making him the top points earner there and tied for fourth in the entire ECHL. He's carried that pace to the AHL with his second goal this season and sixth point in six games with Toronto.
Zach Solow is up again from the Growlers where he's earned 42 points in 42 games this season. He's the dictionary definition of the "character guy" who when you meet him in person is a fun ball of energy and personality, and he has clearly made instant friends on the team and is very popular in the room. It's great to see him get a second goal up with the Marlies this season.
It was also great to see Semyon Der-Arguchintsev back and continuing to not only be a master of setting up power play goals, but now he's scoring his own.
Topi Niemelä Arrives
Topi Niemelä made his debut with the team on Sunday. The Leafs third round draft pick from 2020 joined the team after his Finnish Liiga team Kärpät were eliminated from the playoffs. Niemelä has continuously held a high standing on our Maple Leafs Top 25 Under 25 prospect ranking, reaching all the way up to #6 as of last summer.
What was remarkable is that he had no preparation or practice sessions with the team before the game; he had really just arrived in Toronto in the days before the game, and not only was he slotted right into the lineup, he was placed right on the first power-play unit as the point man.
He filled that role very well, even taking a shift of about 90 seconds on his very first power-play opportunity. His self-evaluation was slightly deprecating, saying "it was good... could be better," but he also noted "it was so much faster than in Finland" so clearly he had a lot of adjustments to his stock game to make on the fly, even beyond playing with guys he never skated with before.
The fact he could actually do that successfully speaks to his ability, and why the team had such confidence in him. Coach Greg Moore said there was no hesitation to put him out immediately as "our organisation has done a great job of scouting him and knowing what he is." He added, "we felt he had the skills and the assets to be tested."
Clearly he passed the test, as Moore said "certainly with how he performed today, we're going to go back to him," heaping on the praise for his skill saying "his smarts and how he finds guys at the right time, beating F1 through the middle of the rink, and passing at the right time that improves the conditions of the puck for the next player" wowed him and a final compliment in that "it's really impressive how he thinks the game."
What I saw matches all of the above. He's a smart player and a great skater. But it's one game, so no rush to put on the pressure and slot him in to the Leafs roster next season, please, but, hey, it could happen if there's spots opened up from trades or departures of some of the existing defenders.
In other prospect news, Ryan Tverberg, who joined the team only a week ago, left the game with an injury. No update was available on his status after the game beyond that it was an "upper body injury". We'll see if he's around on tonight's roster.
The Final Five Games
The final five games for the Marlies include stops to play the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Utica Comets, the Laval Rocket, and then they have their two final games at home, both against the Belleville Senators on April 15th and 16th before the playoffs begin.
Which team the Marlies will face is sill up in the air as the standings below them are very tight, and since all but the two lowest-ranked teams in the North Division move on to the playoffs, and no other team has yet to clinch, even the last place Cleveland Monsters still have an outside chance to make it. Here are the current North Division standings.
In either case, the Marlies standings means they get to skip the whole first-round. They will start in the second-round and play against the winner of a first-round match between 4th and 5th place. That's presently Laval and Rochester, but obviously it could change.
Playoff game tickets are on sale now here, though the dates and times are still to be determined. A reminder that this is a best-of-five series, so "home game #3" may not actually happen assuming they hold last season's 2-2-1 format.