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Toronto Marlies split weekend series with St. John’s IceCaps

Bibeau takes a loss, Sparks gets a win in the weekend series.

Christian Bonin TSGphoto.com

After a long string of away games the Marlies were back at Ricoh Coliseum this weekend for a back-to-back series vs. the St. John’s IceCaps.

The Marlies entered the weekend with an 8-3-0-1 record, while the IceCaps started with a 8-7-1-0 record. Yes, the IceCaps have played four more games than the Marlies, so despite a tie in points, the Marlies are at the top of the division because of the four games in hand.

This weekend featured a lot of moving pieces for the Marlies. Tobias Lindberg is out with an injury, and Josh Leivo’s conditioning stint ended after Saturday’s game. Marlies’ coach Sheldon Keefe also shuffled the most of the forward lines from one game to the next.

Saturday: IceCaps 2 - Marlies 1

For Saturday’s game Antoine Bibeau started in net for the Marlies, and Yann Danis for the IceCaps.

Kasperi Kapanen kicked things off quickly with a nice power play goal... or was it a goal?

This was an odd one. From the angle in the video above you can see the puck go in the net, but it wasn’t called right away and the play went on for a moment. Pretty much everyone knew it was a good goal, but there was still a review. It came out in Kappy’s favour, however that would be the last Marlies goal of the game.

The IceCaps scored twice in the second period leaving the Marlies needing a come from behind goal to tie up the game in the third. The Kapanen line had some great plays, and at the half way point in the period he himself had a shot ring off the crossbar that had everyone at Ricoh gasp.

The third period ended with a stretch of four-on-four thanks to coincidental minors. The Marlies pulled Bibeau to make it five-on four and then six-on-five. There was some solid possession through the end, and notable scoring chances by the Marlies, including a shot by Campbell that almost went in with a scramble on the loose puck around the net. The crowd was on their feet in anticipation of a goal, but it unfortunately didn’t happen.

This was a real close match, and it felt like it really was one of those games that came right down to some bounces going one way and not the other.

Sunday: Marlies 3 - IceCaps 0

For Sunday’s game, Rich Clune and Brooks Laich drew in while Colin Greening was scratched, and Josh Leivo was returned to the Maple Leafs. Garret Sparks started in net for the Marlies and Charlies Lindgren for the IceCaps.

There was also some shuffling of the lines with Kapanen moved to play with Leipsic and Froese; and Gauthier playing with Timashov and Clune.

The most impressive player in the game was IceCaps’ goalie Lindgren, who at times appeared to be left to keep his team in the game all by himself. In total, he faced 39 shots-on-goal stopping 37, while Sparks faced only 19, stopping them all.

There was no scoring at all in the first two periods, despite both teams having some power play opportunities.

The Marlies finally broke through in the third period, scoring three goals total. The first two goals were driven by Andrew Nielsen, with shots from the blue line. His first sailed right through the defence and in to the net, the second was tipped in by Froese.

Nielsen has proven himself capable of contributing on the offence, but watching him play there are still some obvious areas to work on.

I asked him where he thinks he needs to improve and his response was quick and to the point. “I think everyone knows what I can do on the offensive side of the puck, but my defensive game has kind of been in question. I want to show everybody that I can be a good defender, and play in those key situations and play a shut down role as well.”

That’s somewhat generic hockey talk — all players have a stock answer for something on which they need to improve in their game - but the ease of which it rolled of his tongue implies to me this is a conversation he has had in depth with the coaching staff a few times. Nielsen is aware his game away from the puck needs work, which is ultimately a good sign. A player can’t fix his game if he doesn’t first acknowledge it needs work. Nielsen turned 20 years old last week, so he still has lots of time to work it out. The full interview is here.

Leipsic picked up an easy empty net goal at the end of the game to seal the Marlies 3-0 victory. Leipsic also looked great through the whole weekend.

Weekend wrap-up notes

Overall, even with the one loss, it was a positive weekend for the Marlies. There was consistent offence and defence was usually reliable. Picking up two points has let them stay at the top of the North Division.

Bibeau picked up his third regulation loss of the season, holding on to a still low 2.20 GAA and 0.915 all-situations SV%. Sparks’ win was his first shutout and third win of the four games played this season. He has an even lower 2.02 GAA and a 0.918 all-situations SV%.

A surprise face for both games was William Wrenn who played his sixth and seventh game of the season. He had quite a noticeable amount of ice time, indicating some confidence, or at least some rope from Keefe giving him the chance to show what he can do.

Kasperi Kapanen is amazing. He zips up and down the ice with incredible speed. Several times around the net he created scoring chances out of what looked like situations that were almost certainly going to be a turnover.

One of the few constants of recent games for the Marlies is the Rychel - Smith - Johnsson line. Sheldon Keefe thinks they have been a great line, despite not recording many points. “Almost every game we’ve played in the past three weeks they’ve lead our team in scoring chances.” said Keefe. “They haven’t got rewarded for it a great deal.”

Keefe is correct. This weekend the trio registered a combined seven shots-on-goal, resulting in no actual goals. One only needs to look up to the big club and Auston Matthews recent play to note there are inevitable streaks for forwards where they make big contributions to the offence, but don’t get pucks in the net.

Indeed, Keefe also believes the whole team is playing better than what the score sheets. The Marlies +10 goal differential is currently 4th best in the league, even though by actual goals they are 13th.

“Our whole team has played better than some of the statistics will show for guys in terms of goals and assists,” he said, making a comparison to the team he had last season. “It’s a little bit of what I thought would be the case. Offence was going to be a little bit harder to come by, we’re going to have to be better defensively - give up less - and win games a little bit differently and that’s what’s happening right now.”

Keefe’s full interview is below.

The Marlies have a busy week ahead, playing in Albany on Tuesday night, and Syracuse on Friday night. They will have a quick turnaround from that game to play Saturday at 1:30pm at the Air Canada Centre vs. the Utica Comets.