Despite a key late goal and assist from 19-year-old Kasperi Kapanen, the Toronto Marlies’ Game 7 win over the Albany Devils in the second round of the AHL playoffs was about much more.
For the Marlies, whose duo of highly talented teenagers William Nylander and Kapanen dominate the limelight, it was some relative veterans with a lot to prove who came through.
On the game-winning goal, with 2:30 remaining in a 3-3 game, it was a pair of patient spins from pending restricted free agent (RFA) and 22-year-old defensemen Stuart Percy that led to a secondary assist on a goal from pending unrestricted free agent Rich Clune.
Earlier in the third period, it was an un-credited third assist from fellow 22-year-old pending RFA Josh Leivo that sprung Nylander for an outlet pass that resulted in a Connor Carrick goal.
Leivo was switched onto the two teenagers’ line for Game 7 in order to help get Nylander – who has struggled – going offensively. Early in the game, he provided that spark, setting up Nylander for a chance in the slot midway through the first period before beating two defenders on a power move to the net that was stopped by a diving save from Albany’s Scott Wedgewood.
"There were certainly contributions from everyone tonight, even guys who didn’t score or didn't show up on the score sheet." Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said of some of the work from the likes of Leivo.
"We’ve got a good leadership group in there and it showed down the stretch," Connor Brown echoed. "It was a team effort and the leadership group stepped up like they have all year."
In his third year with the Marlies, the 6-2 winger registered 48 points in 51 games and was named to the AHL’s All-Star Game. He ranked 11th among AHL players with more than 30 games played this season with a 0.8 primary points per game clip.
Heading into Game 7, the former the former third round pick led all Marlies forwards in shots on goal (29) and points (eight) coming into the game.
Despite his relative youth, Leivo is counted on as a veteran with the Marlies. His three stints with the Leafs, including a five-goal, 12-game stretch this season, give him considerable NHL experience on a young Marlies team.
Leivo thinks he can provide guidance as a presence on and off the ice for his new linemates.
"They (Kapanen and Nylander) are fun to play with and I feel like I’m one of the older guys that can be accountable and help these younger guys," he said. "I’ve been in the losing and the winning. We’re trying to stay composed and tell guys that we can win a Calder here."
"I like to be a guy that works down low and today playing with Kapanen and Willie I can work down low and help them and it showed out there," Leivo said of his game. "I can play two-way too in the d-zone and create some breakouts."
But next year, if they’re resigned, the likes of Percy and Leivo won’t be waiver-exempt for the very first time. This playoff run might be their last real audition to stick with the Leafs organization.
Moving forward, Leivo is confident he has developed into a player that can take the next step with the Leafs.
"I feel like I’ve progressed a lot and learned a lot," Leivo said, before admitting that he needs to stay focused on playing a key role with the Marlies for now. "I just have to keep my head focused and continue doing what I’m doing."
And the Calder Cup path is just getting started. With two rounds left, the Marlies will need Leivo to continue to lead the way offensively.