The Toronto Marlies finished off their weekend home-opener series against the Utica Comets with a 4-3 win Sunday, cementing a solid start to the 2017-18 season, and moving into a tie for a first-place berth in the highly competitive AHL North Division.
The forward lines were unchanged from Saturday’s game.
Line 1: Rychel - Aaltonen - Kapanen
Line 2: Johnsson - Mueller - Soshnikov
Line 3: Greening - Brooks - Moore
Line 4: Clune - Smith - Timashov
Scratches: Jeremy Bracco, Mason Marchment
The defensive pairings at the start of the game were similar to the start of Saturday’s game.
Pair 1: Dermott - LoVerde
Pair 2: Nielsen - Holl
Pair 3: Valiev - Liljegren
Scratches: Martin Marincin, Michael Paliotta
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe appears to either still be experimenting with the pairings, or changing them on the fly to game situations, as by the second period Liljegren was always playing with Dermott.
In net: Garret Sparks
Backup: Kasimir Kaskisuo
The Comets lines were also similar, though they changed goalies from Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko to veteran backup Richard Bachman.
Garret Sparks was solid again on Sunday, stopping 30 of 33 shots, the first of which was a dangerous blast from the point less that a minute into the game. However, soon after the Comets got one past when Sparks gave up a rebound, and they were up 1-0.
Soshnikov, playing on Greening’s line, had some nifty moves, almost dancing with the puck through the Comets defence as he plowed up the ice for a shot-on-goal, but he was denied by Bachman. Soshnikov leads the team in shots, but his only goal so far is on an empty net.
The Comets gifted the Marlies a total of four power plays in the first period, and they turned two of them into goals.
First up was Kerby Rychel.
Liljegren had a chance to score shortly after, but was tripped. While the Marlies didn’t score on that powerplay, Liljegren finally got his scoring chance and buried it near the end of the period on another power play.
It’s a nice shot; the puck arcing through the air right over Bachman who seems to spot what is about to happen, but has no chance to position himself to stop it. Note that goal wouldn’t have happened without the work done by Greening in front of the net.
Toward the end of the period the Comets had a great scoring chance when Jayson Megna picked up a long pass while standing beside Nielsen. Nielsen couldn’t keep up with him as he broke away toward the net, however Sparks came up with a big save.
The period ended with Aaltonen getting leveled in the biggest hit of the game. He was carrying the puck down along the boards in the Comets zone, suddenly stopped and turned around like he was looking for someone to whom to pass behind him, but all that was coming was a Comets defenceman who blew him up. I think he expected Rychel to be behind him, but Rychel had already moved down low toward the net, and Aaltonen turned around in the direction opposite where Rychel was waiting. It was a really broken play.
The second period started off with a penalty to Valiev, the first of two in the period in what was overall a not impressive performance through the game. I’ve seen him play much better last season and was surprised. The Comets scored on the PP and tied up the game.
Ben Smith picked up his first goal of the season on a rebound from a Justin Holl shot.
The Marlies scored several goals this weekend with very similar plays. I often saw Timashov trying to set that up, though he didn’t seem to have a knack for it and would have often been better to follow Soshnikov’s style and just shoot the puck himself.
Smith had another scoring chance later on in the period, but it rang off the post. Johnsson made it all the way in for a scoring chance too, but blew a tire and fell just before he could take the shot.
With about two minutes left in the period, Sparks was snowed by a Comets player on a routine play, and then all ‘Holl’ broke loose as the Marlies d-man started to mix it up behind the net. Quick intervention from the officials kept a big scrum behind the net from progressing into a brawl, but not before penalties were handed out.
I recall writing many times last year about a need for players to keep an awareness of the game situation in the back of their minds and realise when it’s time to drop it, shut up, and skate away. This was one of those times, but it didn’t happen. Dermott was assigned a roughing penalty which would have off-set one also assigned to Michael Chaput, but, Dermott apparently didn’t like that, and argued with the official who then dinged him a bonus two minutes for Unsportsmanlike Conduct.
You can guess what happened next: the Comets tied the game on the 5-on-3. Alexis D’Aoust fired a shot that went high glove on Sparks, who can’t be blamed for not knowing from where it was coming.
It was down to the third period to settle the game, and Smith made the game winning shot, with Johnsson deflecting it in front of the net.
Mueller and Soshnikov kept the pressure up high on the Comets. Mueller hit one off the post after which Soshnikov made a shot which the fans thought went in, but they ultimately couldn’t get anything past Bachman. Aaltonen rounded out the attacks with another scoring chance, probably his best chance to date, but he wound up with no points in the game.
The Comets gave the Marlies a brief scare when they got a puck in the net, but the goal was quickly waived off for a high-stick tip-in.
Ultimately, the game had an anti-climactic ending. The Marlies were able to wait out the clock on a four minute power play courtesy of the Comets’ Griffen Molino. Molino is an undrafted prospect, playing in his first full season of pro-hockey. He whacked Johnsson in the face with his stick—strong enough to draw blood—earning a double minor and essentially ending his teams’ chance of a comeback goal. I’m sure Comets’ coach Tent Cull was seething.
Johnsson was glued back together on the bench and didn’t appear to miss a shift.
Bachman never really had a chance to leave the Comets’ net for more than a few seconds, and in short order the game was won. The Marlies had officially kicked-off their season with back-to-back wins.
The games were probably a bit closer than Keefe would have liked. Keefe noted there were mistakes made in many areas from special teams to defence. “There’s a lot of things we need to clean up. More so, frankly, than we would have expected” he noted after the game, likely reacting to scraping by a team that finished fifth in the divison last season. However, Keefe is still positive and thinks the coming road trip is an opportunity for a tune up. “It’s more fun to fix things when you’re 2-0 than when you’re 0-2.”
The point totals went in favour of the fourth line this weekend with Clune and Smith scoring goals, and Smith had the shot tipped in in by Johnsson. As a whole, they played very well; out for most of the d-zone faceoffs, and sustaining pressure in the offensive zone to eat up minutes. Timashov, Smith, and Clune together would on many teams be an NHL calibre fourth line, which means they can dominate when sent out on the ice against an AHL fourth line. It will be interesting to see how well that works against the stronger teams in the division like the Rocket and the Amerks.
Colin Greening was a great presence in front of the net, and still looked to have some surprising speed. The Marlies have yet to formally name a Captain since the departure of Andrew Campbell (who is now Captain of the Tuscon Roadrunners,) but I suspect Greening is in the running for the post.
Soshnikov had 11 SOG over the two games, though none really seemed like a scoring chance. His goal Saturday was on an empty net. When he gets possession of the puck he really likes to shoot it, and as quickly as possible. If he’s in the Marlies zone he often barrels up the ice by himself along the boards, gets surrounded, and then shoots a rather low-danger shot. We all know Soshnikov is a little beast and plowing his way through traffic is his jam, but I can foresee that play going really awry against teams with better depth on defence than the Comets.
Liljegren! I wouldn’t pass any judgement on him right now as it’s clear he’s still adjusting his play to the AHL. Keefe is deploying him at times like a fourth forward rather than a defenceman. The flip in the second period to put him with Dermott certainly kicked things into high gear when they were out together. It was great to see him get his first AHL goal in person. There was another Swede playing his first AHL games this weekend too: Philip Holm on the Comets. If you recall the defenceman was linked to the Leafs for some time, but he ended up signing with the Canucks, and the Leafs instead picked up Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen.
The Marlies will spend next weekend on a road trip through the Atlantic Division, playing a rough three games in three days.
Friday Oct. 12 @ Hartford Wolf Pack
Saturday Oct. 13 @ Providence Bruins
Sunday Oct. 14 @ Springfield Falcons
It’s almost certain there will be a goalie rotation over the three games, so keep an eye out for Calvin Pickard to make his Marlies debut. We’ll also be watching for Jeremy Bracco and Martin Marincin to make it into some or all of those three games, and whom they displace to the press box.