The Marlies played back-to-back games vs. the Hartford Wolf Pack this weekend. The games capped off a 3-in-3 series that started Friday in Rochester with a loss to the Americans. They started this weekend in the middle of the standings of the AHL Eastern Conference, with a 10-7-2 record.
The Wolf Pack were last in their division, and second last in the AHL Eastern Conference, entering the weekend with a 6-10-3 record. The Wolf Pack are affiliated with the New York Rangers, who, because of recent playoff runs and trades, don’t have a cupboard stocked full of high selection draft picks as prospects.
Indeed, the first name that pops out when you look at their roster is Tanner Glass. Yes, that same Tanner Glass who has played 500 NHL games for several different teams. He plays on their third line.
As far as actual prospects, their top scorer and points earner is Marek Hrivik, with (all totals as of end of the weekend) 17 points in 20 games. Hrivik was never drafted, only signed by the Rangers on an ELC in 2012. UPDATE: He was recalled to the Rangers today.
Also at forward is an actual first round draft pick by the Canucks. Nicklas Jensen, picked 29th that season the Canucks made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, wound up with the Rangers after a trade this past summer for Emerson Etem.
By the time you get down to the Wolf Packs’ second line of forwards you are already seeing players like center Adam Tambellini (yes, son of Steve) with an anemic 3 goals in 21 games this season. The Marlies already have nine forwards with three or more goals.
The feeling coming in to this weekend was that these were both winnable games from the Marlies against a team with a weak offence. Consistency of play would being a key factor given the very tiring 3-in-3 schedule.
It turned out both games were close, with the Marlies winning the first, and losing the second.
Saturday: Wolf Pack win 3-2
This game looks close by the score, but watching it live felt like the Marlies were dominated for most of the game.
There was a lot of special teams play. In the first period alone the Marlies were either on a power play or penalty kill for half of the period. Those special teams did not perform well.
Right from the start of the game the Marlies looked locked in their zone trying to fend off attacks from the Wolf Pack. They had a lot of trouble clearing the puck out past the neutral zone. Attacks were stymied by turnovers and the default option reverted to dumping in the puck and making a line change.
Garret Sparks was forced to make some big saves, but he couldn’t stop everything. The Wolf Pack picked up a power play goal at about half way through the period, and then added an embarrassing short handed goal in the final minute.
The Marlies seemed to have some new energy at the start of the second period. They were able to break out and sustain an attack but that quickly faded. About half way through the period, Coach Sheldon Keefe shook up the lines, notably putting offensive leaders Kasperi Kapanen and Brendan Leipsic back together.
Keefe explained it was to try and spark the attack on the Wolf Pack. “Offensively at even strength we’ve been pretty challenged as a group here for some time. We’re trying to find some things that work. Obviously you like to have Leipsic and Kapanen drive two different lines, ideally.”
His changes had some impact, but there was still the fundamental problem for the Marlies of cracking the Wolf Pack blue line. With 5:00 minutes left in the second period, two dump and chase attempts by the Marlies in a row lead to quick turnarounds that generated scoring chances and things looked rather bleak. The period ended with a lot of board battles, and Kapanen and the Wolf Pack’s Ryan Greaves picked up coincidental minors for roughing right at the end, so the third period would start with a 4-on-4.
Another quick Wolf Pack goal opened the third. Down 3-0, it was defenceman William Wrenn who finally got the puck past Wolf Pack goalie Magnus Hellberg, at least we all thought he did, but the play continued for a few moments, to wild jeering from the Ricoh Coliseum crowd.
The play was reviewed after the next whistle, and it was noted it did in fact cross the line and the Marlies were awarded the goal.
This game was the Marlies teddy bear toss game, so everyone was anxious for the goal to be called. Once it was official it rained stuffed animals on to the ice for the next few minutes.
Oh the suspense... and it's a good Marlies goal! Teddy Bear toss time! pic.twitter.com/4911f9FG2g— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) December 4, 2016
Wrenn is new to the team this season. The depth defenceman was drafted in the second round in 2009, but has yet to crack the NHL. He spent most of last season with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL — he is from Anchorage — but was added to the Marlies depth for this season.
Keefe is pleased with his contributions and has increased his ice time and games played as the season has progressed while Dermott has been out with injury. “In most games he he’s stepped in, gives us good minutes, and is reliable on the ice. He has some offensive abilities too.”
“In terms of what we wanted in adding a depth defenceman he’s done well here in stepping in when we needed him,” Keefe added.
After Wrenn’s goal, Brendan Leipsic followed up with a great scoring chance that Hellberg stopped and there was some shift of momentum, but that came to a halt when a whole minute of 5-on-3 hockey was used up without any successful attack.
The Marlies power play unit finally scored on a Kapanen shot, but the game would ultimately end in a loss.
It felt a little grim in the arena. Despite the close score, the Wolf Pack seemed to stun the Marlies and easily stifle their offence.
Sunday: Marlies win 5-3
Unlike Saturday, this game did not feel as close as suggested by the score. The game was really 4-3, with Leipsic scoring an empty net goal on a breakaway at the very end of the third period.
The Wolf Pack looked knocked back on their heels for much of the game. The Marlies play was more aggressive and physical, and it worked for them, though not in the first period. John Gilmour (not related to Doug) scored in just under two minutes from the first face-off, followed up by a goal from Nicklas Jensen less than two minutes later on a power play.
Four minutes into the first period and the Marlies were already down 2-0, but that’s when the momentum started to shift. Mason Marchment took a penalty, which was killed and he attempted a play coming out of the box. He flubbed the shot, but it swung the momentum back even more towards the Marlies.
Next was Andreas Johnsson on a breakaway, which also didn’t work, but again, felt like the Marlies were finally taking ownership of the offence and had figured out how to crack the Wolf Pack’s zone.
Kerby Rychel had tried to start a fight early in the period, but it would eventually be Andrew Nielsen vs. Chris Brown that dropped gloves for a wild fist fight that looked like something from the 1970’s NHL.
Later in the period, the Johnsson-Smith-Marchment line had some success pressing a long attack, but Hellberg fended them off, and they had to quit for a line change, completely out of gas.
The line of Clune-Cliche-Rychel were also notably successful in their attacks, and would prove themselves as key to winning this game in the second period, but it was first Kapanen’s turn to score, with a hard shot on a power play.
Rychel followed that up with another power play goal, tipped in off one of Nielsen’s now famous booming shots from back at the blue line.
The Marlies had tied the game, but then Chris Brown beat Sparks with a shot that trickled under his pads excruciatingly slowly. Sparks didn’t know where it went and saw it rolling behind him too late.
The Wolf Pack ended the second period once again in the lead, however the third period was all Marlies. First up was a goal by Milan Michalek, followed up by Rich Clune burying a rebound off a shot from Rychel, scoring his first goal of the season.
Wrenn and Kapanen also had great scoring chances in the period that were denied by Hellberg. Leipsic put the puck in the empty Wolf Pack net to seal the game with a 5-3 win. These were the Marlies we expected to see.
It’s surprising how little Clune has been on the ice this season. He was one of the few who could successfully carry his line in to the Wolf Pack zone on the attack in Saturday’s game. I recall back to last season’s playoffs he had an excellent pairing with Gauthier, and they generated a lot of offence together.
Sparks made a successful return from his suspension, playing Saturday in his first game in two weeks. Sparks noted he understands he used poor judgement in his social media comments, saying “it’s not who I want to be known as.” He has reached out to, and received advice from many, which he is working through, in addition to support from team staff. “I didn’t execute this the way I should have.” he added.
With Antoine Bibeau gone, called up to the Leafs, Sparks may see several more starts in the upcoming road trip. UPDATE: Bibeau is back on the roster. We will have to wait and see who makes it in net later this week. UPDATE 2: Though with Enroth being waived, who knows!
The Marlies play the Utica Comets Wednesday, the Providence Bruins Friday, and have another rematch with the Wolf Pack on Saturday. Their next home game will be Saturday December 17, which will be at the Air Canada Centre.