The lines for this weekend’s games were broadly similar to last weekend.
Lindberg - Froese - Leipsic
Rychel - Smith - Johnsson
Leivo - Gauthier - Kapanen
Greening - Laich - Michalek
Josh Leivo was around still on his conditioning loan, and the very expensive fourth line was back for another pair of games. The top three lines have settled into stability over the last few games, but that means Dmytro Timashov, Trevor Moore, Mason Marchment and Marc-André Cliche are not getting any game time.
Travis Dermott is still injured so the defence pairings were:
Nielsen - Holl
Campbell - Valiev
Loov - Wrenn
William Wrenn has been very good most of the time, and Andrew Campbell has stood out in a way that emphasizes that he played through some injuries last year that undersold his ability to fans.
Friday game: Marlies, 3 - Penguins, 0
Going into this game the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, hereafter known as “Penguins”, were ahead of the Marlies in points percentage and are the toughest, most well constructed and staffed team in the AHL other than the Marlies themselves. They, and the Phantoms, who the Marlies played next, are the crest of the new wave of AHL team development environments.
The man who has his name on the Stanley Cup as head coach in 2016 started last season coaching these Penguins, and he left behind a lot of good structure. The team is one of the top few in defensive ability in the AHL. They were a test of the new Marlies squad, who have played very well but faltered somewhat against Albany, another tough customer to take on.
The game opened very ominously for the Toronto side. They got hemmed in tight, and Antoine Bibeau, getting the start again, had to be on top of things right away. Frederik Gauthier took a chasing-the-play type of hooking penalty not even two minutes in, and this game was a disaster. Absolute disaster.
Except for how it wasn’t.
The Marlies killed that penalty, took control of the puck, moved in on Tristan Jarry and peppered him with 13 shots to six in the period.
At near the seven-minute mark, the Penguins took a chasing-the-play tripping call and Kerby Rychel scored his first goal for the Marlies on the power play. 1-0 Marlies.
The Marlies stayed out of the penalty box more than they usually do in this game, although Milan Michalek took a minor for closing his hand on the puck. They killed that off fine. As for Michalek, the 11+ million dollar fourth line was back for this game, and they didn’t show themselves as very worth their exalted pay. They had three shots on goal between the three of them, while Rychel had five of his own. They are fine as a checking line, but this is the AHL, they had better be fine. They should be outstanding.
Meanwhile this game was a test of Brendan Leipsic. He did not play to his full potential against Albany, and the fear that he can only dance his magic against a certain level of competition is valid. If he is stymied by tougher defensive teams and more confined to power play opportunities, he is still valuable, but he needs to be able to produce at five-on-five against the best AHL teams to show NHL readiness. He had two shots on goal and one assist in this game, but he handled the Penguins much better than he did the Devils.
Rychel however, was on fire. He and Andreas Johnsson teamed up on a goal late in the first to make it 2-0.
Gauthier made up for his early error with a goal in the second to make it 3-0.
The Marlies of old would have played a loosey-goosey game after that, likely let in a few, maybe even three, and then roared off to score their way out of trouble. This sophomore year team of Sheldon Keefe’s manages to keep the pressure on. They had a 14-5 lead in shots on goal in the second period, and held to an even eight a piece in the third. They didn’t take chances, they didn’t make Bibeau win it for them, and they sat on a lead efficiently and successfully against a tough goalie on the road.
To say this was their best team performance this year is an understatement. It might top some of the much more exciting-seeming dramatic comeback games of last year.
Saturday game: Marlies, 2 - Phantoms, 7
If the Penguins game was the Marlies best outing, surely this was their worst. Worse even than their first loss on the road to the Amerks.
There was only one lineup change. Colin Greening was scratched and Trevor Moore took his place. That meant Bibeau was in net again.
Including this game, Bibeau has played 542:47 minutes over nine games, and Garret Sparks has played 177:46 minutes over three games. Continuing the trend from the playoffs last year, and taking into account that Sparks was experiencing some “soreness” earlier on that saw Jeff Glass dress as backup, it very much seems that Bibeau is Keefe’s guy in net. Keefe left him in all game.
This game featured the best performance so far by Michalek and Leivo. But it definitely wasn’t a night anyone wants to remember.
The game was lost at five-on-five. And it started off on a losing note in the first period. The Marlies were chopping at the Phantoms sticks, trying to dislodge the puck, mainly because they rarely had it, and they couldn’t connect on passes or get their feet moving. The Phantoms easily disrupted their play in the neutral zone.
Toronto took two penalties in the period, both by defencemen, and this is a trend. The Marlies are in the box a lot, and it is defenders who are usually guilty. The first penalty was killed, and the second came with only 30 seconds left in the game, so it was a factor in the second period.
The Phantoms scored two goals on nine shots while the Marlies managed six shots on goal of their own. On one of the goals, Taylor Leier had a breakaway that started out with a turnover on a Marlies offensive rush. Leipsic, one of the fastest skaters on the team, could do nothing but ineffectually wave his stick around, trying to chop the puck free.
It seems obvious everyone was tired after a long set of road back-to-back games. Bibeau did not look sharp. And Anthony Stolarz, currently in the top ten of regular starters in the AHL by save percentage, was very sharp.
The start of the second saw the Marlies trying to kill the rest of Rinat Valiev’s slashing penalty. Valiev isn’t just the most penalized Marlie, he is the most penalized player in the AHL. The Phantoms scored their only meaningful power play goal of the game to make it 3-0.
The only sign of hope came when Tobias Lindberg set up Byron Froese for a lovely goal. The Marlies had the shots on goal advantage in the period, but at one goal a piece, they hadn’t gained any ground. 3-1 Phantoms.
In the third period it all fell apart completely. Scoring effects and past experience of the team should lead you to expect the Marlies to make a big push and at least make Stolarz work for his win. The shots in the third period were 10-6 Phantoms, partly on some late game, irrelevant power plays, but mostly because the Marlies were getting all their offensive zone time from their bottom six. And yes, that bottom six includes Kapanen, but the top six includes the entire Colin Smith line who were invisible for most of the night.
The first goal of the period came a few minutes in on a massive rebound right into traffic given up by Bibeau.
Michalek got his first Marlies goal right after, but that just kept pace. 4-2 Phantoms, and the game was over. It seemed like anything would get past Bibeau, and the Marlies couldn’t stop them from getting the chances.
The Phantoms added three more goals, easy as pie, and all the Marlies came up with to counter was Smith running Stolarz, and Rychel getting the gate for “continuing altercation”. Their frustration was obvious, their fatigue plain, and the entire game was a shock to behold after the one the night before. Rychel wasn’t the only player who had gone from Jekyll to Hyde overnight.
Bibeau made 20 saves on 27 shots.
Michalek was the perfect grinder line player all game. He was tough on the puck, gained the slot without being shoved out of it, and he got a goal because of it. Leivo is clearly a cut above most other players in overall hockey ability. He backchecks better than most of the team, he is never out of position, he skates fast enough for the AHL, but there just doesn’t seem to be the offensive spark there that saw him pile up points last year.
The defensive corps of the team is a weakness that showed up very plainly in this game, and some of the forwards were just too easy to shove off the puck. In this game it was Smith and Leipsic who couldn’t maintain control. Lindberg and Rychel picked up some of their slack, however. Bibeau looked like he should have watched the third period from the bench.
The Marlies come home to face the IceCaps next weekend for two afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday. Leivo is allowed to play in the first game only, and then the Leafs need to make a decision about his future.