The little Toronto Marlies are in a state of flux right now. There are injuries (Gauthier, Lindberg, Dermott), there are NHL veterans in the room (Michalek, Laich), ‘could be in the NHL’ players (Leipsic, Rychel), and AHL rookies (Timashov, Nielsen) all filling the room around the players who were the regulars for the 15-16 Marlies (Kapanen, Clune, Campbell).
Last year’s runaway freight train team has seen a lot of passengers move up to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and at the end of November the team sits third in the North Division, with a 10-5-1-1 record, and have been an average 4-4-1-1 in their past 10 games.
The first half of the first period of their Tuesday night game was back and forth. The Marlies had the edge in shots, but the Phantoms held the edge in physical play.
Laich, the veteran, led the way on the PK in the first period. Playing the Lehigh Valley forwards at centre ice, he kept the opposing forwards at bay while the rest of the Marlies formed a wall to successfully kill the early penalty.
Milan Michalek, earlier today said this to David Alter and The Athletic:
“At the time (waving his no trade clause to come to Toronto) was a popular decision, and I made it,” he said on Tuesday. “But, maybe I wouldn’t be with Ottawa (now) or maybe I would? I couldn’t control what happened since then, but I’m here now, and I’m focused on that.”
He is down in the AHL, and played well on Tuesday, leading his line deep into the offensive zone, not playing over them, but playing with his linemates.
The Phantoms kept the Marlies from having the room needed for the fancy plays they were trying to set up. Twice in a minute, Brendan Leipsic was denied a pass or lost the puck as he tried to dance around the defenders. On another instance, he got all the way to the net before realizing he’s too close and shot right into Alex Lyon’s pads.
The only goal of the first period was scored by Lehigh Valley, as Chris Connor shoveled in garbage in front of the net in a crowd of Phantoms. Colin Smith was in the box for hooking, and the Phantoms were able to capitalize on the Marlies being a man short.
The second period started with the Marlies at the far end of the zone. With one end of seats tarped off, it saved anyone from having this view for about five minutes:
The second period is underway. Lots of time spent in the offensive zone so far pic.twitter.com/JkoCIzaGY0— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) November 30, 2016
While the Marlies are just tiny dots off in the horizon, Travis Sanheim grabbed his stick and committed a cross checking penalty, giving the Marlies a powerplay.
While with the man advantage, ‘could-be-NHLer’ Brendan Leipsic helped keep the PP unit in the Phantoms’ zone long enough to get a wicked shot off from the top of the glove-side faceoff circle, where Andreas Johnsson redirected the puck in to give the Marlies the tying goal.
Leipsic and his fellow could-be NHLers did their best to prove they deserved to be the next callup to the Leafs — leading the charge, handling the puck around multiple Phantoms, taking clean, close shots.
William Wrenn, of the Marlies, took a holding penalty, but the Marlies killed off that penalty with very little drama. Then Andrew Nielsen was victim to the worst penalty ever introduced into hockey, the dreaded “puck over the glass” penalty. Seconds later, Brooks Laich bops a Phantom on the nose and gets a high sticking call.
Kasperi Kapanen came out as the forward in the 5-on-3 penalty kill, another close to the NHL player, and along with Andrew Campbell he kept the Phantoms off the scoreboard. Trusted on the two-man short line, Kapanen showed the skill, sight and maturity needed for the big league. With the dearth of wingers the Leafs have, will we see him full time on the Leafs, or could he becomes trade fodder?
When the power play was down to 5-on-4, Taylor Leier used his stick too much and went to the box for tripping, nullifying the rest of the power play.
The second period ended with a flurry of activity in front of the Phantoms’ net, as Colin Smith ended the period with a close shot at the buzzer, but the period ended at one goal each.
The third period was busier than any of the others, plenty happening in both ends of the rink. The game continued to be one of puck luck, bounces, and determination. Neither side was giving up much room for the other to maneuver and the only real chances were coming on the power play, and even those goals were redirected and shoveling in trash.
Danick Martel for Lehigh Valley was another example; like the other two, the third goal of the game, second for the Phantoms, came from the power play group, though after the penalty expired. A Samuel Morin shot from the point saw Martel redirect and the Phantoms went up 2-1.
Later, Maxime Lamarche went to the box for interference and the Marlies power play was energized once again. Andrew Nielsen, an AHL rookie, played point on the PP unit, saving the puck and keeping it in like it’s second nature to him. He has been one of the better Marlies defense this season, not playing as much as Campbell, or Justin Holl, but making the most of his time on the ice. He handles himself well in the AHL for someone fresh out of junior.
Another power play came for the Marlies, when Robert Hagg headed to the box, however the Phantoms weren't about to let in another man-advantage goal, giving the Marlies a harder time than they’d had all game, and not many chances came off the PP.
The Phantoms ended up scoring a rare even-strength goal after a failed behind the net pass which lead to a forgotten puck that Jordan Weal nabbed and put past Antoine Bibeau to give the Phantoms a 3-1 lead.
As even as the majority of the game was, the final minutes were essentially all Lehigh Valley. Andrew Nielsen took a slashing penalty with 1:30 left in the game, and the Phantoms scored a PP empty net goal (Colin McDonald) to seal the victory.
At best I can call this game average. There were moments of excitement around the nets, but no one dominated one way or the other. No one player truly stood out above their place already — Brendan Leipsic is NHL ready, it stood out tonight, but he wasn’t a superstar.
Everyone played their roles to a T. The NHLers held back enough for everyone to keep up with them. The AHL vets got the big ice time, the big roles, and filled them out — knew the game to play. The kids took advantage of what they were given and did alright.
At best, this is a team where the kids can learn. At worst, it’s a dumping ground for unwanted NHL deals. Right now the Marlies are somewhere in the middle of all of this, and that’s OK. For now.
Hopefully, as the season progresses, things will clear up and the Marlies can focus squarely on development of the next wave of the greatest prospects known to the NHL.