This weekend the Marlies played another back-to-back series, this time against the Rochester Americans, affiliates of the Buffalo Sabres. The Marlies won their first game on Saturday, but lost the second on Sunday.
The Amerks are chasing the Marlies in the AHL North Division Standings. After the weekend games, the teams stand tied with 33 points, though the Marlies still have two games in hand.
Winning is becoming critical for the Marlies. They have slipped to tenth place in the conference, and fourth in their division. The AHL division playoff rules mean the season cannot in any way yet be written off, but Marlies’ coach Sheldon Keefe is concerned, and he has been for some time.
Back in November, Keefe told me that he expected offence would be hard to come by. Asked on Sunday if that projection was coming true his immediate response was “Clearly.”
On Saturday, Keefe noted “a lot of where we are in the standings is because we haven’t produced offensively.” adding “[I believe] we have yet to lose a game in regulation when we score three goals.” Highlighting that loses are happening because they can’t get the puck in the opponent net, especially away from the power-play.
Interestingly, Keefe does continue to regularly run with an 11-man forward and 7-man defence lineup.
I am a little late to the recap here, so I will not focus too much on the games. I’ve embedded the highlight clips. I will focus more on observations, comments from Keefe, and updates on the team.
SATURDAY: Marlies 5 - Amerks 0
Did the Marlies dominate this game? It looks like it on the score sheet. Garret Sparks got his ninth start of the season, fifth win, and second shutout. Linus Ullmark left with an embarrassing loss for the Amerks, though the shot total will tell you much about this game.
Ullmark stopped 37 of 42 SOG. Consider that and the fact and that the Marlies had only one power play in the game, and it’s quite obvious they had high and valuable puck possession for long stretches.
In fact, special teams were a rarity: there was only a single penalty in each period. Yes, just one, not one per team, but only one per period.
However, Keefe wasn’t so happy with the performance from his whole team. The top line featuring Brendan Leipsic, Byron Froese, and Tobias Lindberg was singled out after the game, despite the fact Froese scored two of those five goals.
Keefe scolded them saying “I actually didn’t like the line to be honest for most of the night. They scored a couple big goals for us, but they were pretty sloppy and we expect better from them.”
Indeed it did feel like the Kapanen line was driving play, doing everything to generate the scoring chances. However, it should be noted there was also fire power contributed for the blue line, with Valiev firing a rocket past Ullmark right off a faceoff.
Andreas Johnsson picked up his eighth goal of the season, and had more high danger scoring chances beyond that.
Sparks played a lights out game; very athletic and confident. Sparks stopped a two-man breakaway by the Amerks’ Nick Baptiste and Cal O’Reilly with a seemingly prescient ability to position himself. After the game he made a point to first credit his goalie coach for helping him be prepared.
“I think that comes back to the work that me and Piero Grecco have done lately. [Attention to] being in control of situations, and putting yourself in a good posture to move, and just not panicking at all” said Sparks, adding he believes it helps him take control of the flow of the game “It influenced the way that shooters were attacking me.”
SUNDAY Amerks 4 - Marlies 3 (OT)
Both the Marlies and the Amerks changed up goal-tending for Sunday’s game. After his stunning shutout on Saturday, Sparks was given a rest in favour of Antoine Bibeau, who was sent down from the Maple Leafs to play during the bye week. The Amerks played goalie John Muse.
The Amerks upped their game and generated more shots on Sunday, though they did their best to sabotage that with a bad power-play unit. The Amerks also couldn’t get anyone in front of the net to get those greasy garbage goals.
Plus there’s letting Kasperi Kapanen get a breakaway. You don’t let Kapanen have a breakaway.
I don’t have official confirmation, but Andrew Nielsen appeared to have lower ice time than normal. Viktor Loov was often playing with Nielsen’s normal partner form earlier in the season, Andrew Campbell.
Ultimately, the Amerks won in OT. Keefe wasn’t totally satisfied with Bibeau’s play. “I don’t think they should have got three. One of those two in the second period... he’s gotta make a save for us on those.” Keefe noted Bibeau’s had quite a busy week bouncing up and down from the NHL to the AHL, and, indeed, all the Marlies are exhausted after returning from back-to-back games against the Manitoba Moose last weekend.
“We had lots of opportunities to score more in the second period and we didn’t” said Keefe to summarize the game.
Notes and Ephemera
The younger brother of Maple Leafs star William Nylander was returned to the Amerks after participating in the IIHF World Junior Championships in time only for Sunday’s game. What I saw was incredibly impressive speed and decision making. At one point in the third period he grabbed the puck behind the Amerks blue line, started an attack run, and set up scoring chances on Bibeau, all literally in under three seconds. His speed is amazing, and we have only seen the beginning of his offensive capabilities so far. Keep an eye out for Alex on the Sabres in the years to come, assuming he isn’t called up later this season. The long dormant Buffalo-Toronto rivalry is going to dramatically re-intensify with these two brothers battling in the same NHL division.
There was however no love for him from fellow Swede Viktor Loov. After Nylander lined up for a great scoring chance in the third period his stick broke on the shot, flubbing the puck, and Loov moved in and gave him a big hard check.
Some other site you may have read thinks Justin Holl is hot stuff. I don’t. I thought he was really bad in last year’s Calder Cup playoff. I didn’t think he has been great this season either.
Staring back at me in my game notes from Sunday, there’s entires noting Holl foiling scoring chances, and forcing turnovers by no less than that first-round draft pick Alex Nylander himself. That’s got to count for something because of his skating and decision making speed I outlined above. I am not going to change my judgement on Holl just yet, but I will keep a closer eye on him. Maybe he’s better than I think.
He now has three games played with the Marlies. Keefe sounds impressed “His speed is really obvious. When the puck gets on his stick it generally gets down to the other teams end in a hurry.”
Corrado has played a big role for the Marlies since being assigned on a conditioning loan from the Maple Leafs. This weekend he was primarily with Justin Holl. Keefe has high praise for the defenceman “The first two games we played out in Manitoba he was outstanding.” While little used by Mike Babcock, Keefe is taking advantage of having him on the roster. “He’s lead our team in ice time in each of the games that he’s played. We’ve tried to put him in a lot of different situations, and he’s done well with it.”
Keefe noted he has improved since the last time he coached him. “I believe from what I saw in those first two games he’s a much better player than when he was here a year ago.”
Keefe confirmed that Karri Ramo is officially still with the Marlies, but is currently injured. An update came via Twitter today from Pierre LeBrun
Diamond says they anticipate Ramo (NHL UFA) will be ready to return to play in the second half of February ...— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) January 10, 2017
It is unclear if the 30 year old Ramo has any future with team. He was signed to a try-out contract and played in three games in the first pat of the AHL season. He recorded a loss in all of them. It has been nearly a month since his last game.
Jeff Glass has also formally been released from his try-out contract and is no longer a part of the organization. With the Leafs now having claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers, the goalie depth picture is less clear than ever this season.
UPDATE: Glass signed a contract with the Rockford Ice Hogs, which are the AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Marlies next game is a rare Wednesday night 7:00 PM match against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins at Ricoh Coliseum.
There’s also a rather special event coming up next weekend.