The Toronto Marlies played their first game of the season at the Coliseum on Saturday against the Rochester Americans, the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season. Despite coming out strong with an 4-1 lead at the end of the second period, the Marlies wound up losing the game in overtime.
This game was played by a Marlies team with many familiar names from last season, but with a healthy dose of new talent, but more importantly, it was a team playing in front of an entirely new coaching staff lead by John Gruden, who was formerly the assistant coach of the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders, though is more locally familiar as the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs when they were OHL champions.
Here was the roster for Saturday's game. Note there's a total of 28 skaters and four goalies listed in the game notes for the team as of Saturday, so these lines will as usual feature some players subbing in and out of the lineup to get them in games, and to let lightly injured players rest.
The first power play unit was made up of: McMann, Shaw, Robertson, Holmberg, and Niemelä. They would be integral to the Marlies big lead through the end of the second period.
The first penalty killing unit was made up of: Gambrell, Clifford, Kokkonen and Laegsson.
My instinct is not to dissect game #1 of the season too long, especially because the pre-season for the Marlies was only two games, and many of the players on the roster were still up with the Leafs when those games were played. Both the Marlies and the Amerks looked like a group still gelling together, though the Marlies got their group in order first, then perhaps got overconfident and lost that confidence when the Amerks brought their team together.
While there was no scoring for most of the first period, the Marlies clearly came out of the gate way more prepared than the Amerks, and Keith Petruzzelli was a wall in their net.
Things finally broke when the Marlies got their second power play chance of the game. This power play is so dangerous and skilled for the AHL level that it was inevitable it would score so quickly, seconds from the first face-off.
So there should be no surprise that same power play group then got the next goal in the second period, and check out Robertson here never quitting on that puck and getting off that perfect pass to Shaw for the goal, again only seconds into the power play.
Shaw and McMann added another goal each in the period, with the Amerks getting only one back. One to highlight was Abruzzese on McMann's goal with this great pass through a mess of defenders to get it right on McMann's stick while he was in motion too.
these two go together like pb & j 🤝 pic.twitter.com/vOSB5ehTaX— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) October 14, 2023
The Americans came back and blasted the Marlies with three straight goals in the third period to tie things up. So the game went to three-on-three OT and it was Jiri Kulich, the Sabres first round draft pick in 2022, and frequent thorn in the Marlies side last season, who won the game for the Amerks. I'm surprised he hasn't made their NHL team yet, but I haven't followed closely their lineup, and as an April birthday, he's still only 19 years-old.
Here's the full game highlights pack.
Gruden took the loss in stride, and while disappointed, he noted that the team got out in the first two periods using the new structure well and executed as expected. He said the third period challenges were that "we weren't moving pucks quick enough, and we were losing those battles, and getting hemmed in. They had a push and we didn't respond to it." He was optimistic though and said notes will be taken as "it was a learning experience for our guys," and that "it's something we'll have to clean up."
Bobby McMann praised the new coaching staff and their approach, saying "I think the change is great. It elevates the guys to challenge them more, to not get complacent with how everything has been the same all the time, so I'm all for it."
Nick Robertson wound up with two assists on the score sheet, but his agility to turn on a dime and accelerate so fast in another direction still wows you. There's so much energy there, but our commentary from the Top 25 Under 25 series stands, where we placed him at #3, in that there's obviously enough skill there but we all agreed we need to see him put all the pieces together to become more than the sum of their individual parts, which is ultimately the difference between an AHL and NHL player. It's only one game, but I like what I saw there. No one will ever say he lacks determination, and you saw it once again. I look forward to seeing that grow even more this season.
Topi Nimelä looked good and ran the back-end of the power play well. And does he ever love to mix it up when there's a scrum. He'll just jump in there and go for it regardless of any size discrepancy, he'll mix it up with anyone.
Finally, you cannot skip talking about Logan Shaw, who had a point-per-game last season and you could think at 30 years-old that was an outlier year, yet here he is now 31 and has four points, two goals and two assists in only the first game. The man is captain for a reason and Gruden praised his leadership. "It's outstanding, he's very professional. He helps us [the coaching staff] out too. He's a really smart and intelligent hockey player. I really enjoy having him on the team."
The Marlies next game is today, Sunday, against the Utica Comets (New Jersey Devils affiliates) at 4:00 p.m. at the Coliseum. The Marlies are starting the season with a five-game homestand, with two more games next weekend, and then one on Tuesday October 24 before they have to vacate the Coliseum for the Royal Winter Fair and stay out on the road until November 18.