A vastly different line-up took to the ice for the Toronto Marlies 2016-17 home opener but you could be forgiven for thinking it was still last season with the way the home team bossed their opponents at times.
With change comes opportunity for others to impress and there were some standout performances for the first forty minutes of this victory over the Utica Comets.
It was a fast and furious start, as the first whistle would not be blown until 5:35 had elapsed.
Newcomers Colin Greening and Kerby Rychel tested Richard Bachman in net for the Comets, but the visitors were not without chances themselves.
A partial break by Curtis Valk was denied by a strong back check from Andreas Johnsson, Garret Sparks first save of note turn was turning aside Ashton Sautner and Viktor Loov showed bravery to block an effort from Michael Chaput.
Valk was one of Utica’s better players during this encounter but after being the beneficiary of a turnover, the forward whiffed on his attempted shot in the slot area.
As if stung by allowing that excellent opening, the Marlies responded with a dominating shift in the Utica zone – the line of Leipsic-Froese-Lindberg proving hard to contain for Vancouver’s affiliate.
Although Toronto were holding sway on the shot-clock it was the Comets who came closest to breaking the deadlock as the period approached the midway mark. A broken play resulted with the puck on the stick of defenseman Troy Stecher, but his effort rang off the crossbar to the relief of the home crowd.
With a little over seven minutes remaining, the first penalty of many would be called and quickly changed the direction of the game. A double minor was bad enough for Utica and although they caught a break when Johnsson’s shot whistled past the far post, 65 seconds into the penalty, they were guilty of another infraction, to be down two men for a full two minutes.
Numerous times the Marlies went close and Bachman produced a wonderful glove save before Sheldon Keefe called a timeout. It would prove a masterstroke in hindsight.
Toronto won the face-off and rookie Andrew Nielsen casually moved from the top of the right circle to the middle of the ice in possession, before ripping home a shot glove high on Bachman to open the scoring.
T. J who?
The home team were still on the power play and 48 seconds later doubled their lead.
Kasperi Kapanen firing an effort on net from the point which Bachman saved and then scrambled to deny Rychel in front. The former Columbus man could not find the net but on hand was Nikita Soshnikov to smash the puck home in tight.
Toronto were a little sloppy at times and a turnover allowed Joseph LaBate a scoring chance but Justin Holl took one for the team and hooked the left winger to deny him late in the first period.
Toronto’s penalty kill stood firm as Utica’s man advantage carried over into the middle frame, but the visitors had some energy in their legs to begin the period and were making their hosts work harder.
In truth the visitors really should have halved the deficit five and a half minutes in as Valk was all alone in front after a 2-on-1 break but he lost the handle when trying to make a move around Sparks.
A second straight Toronto penalty was a result of the somewhat turning tide but almost produced a short-handed goal. Captain Andrew Campbell leading a partial breakaway but his effort was well stopped and the rebound only just eluded Byron Froese. The previously unlucky Stetcher would come closest to getting Utica on the board but Sparks turned him aside.
Within seconds of killing the penalty, the Marlies were ruthless and made it 3-0 with arguably the nicest goal of the game. From the left wing, Leipsic drove towards the hash marks, dropping the puck for Lindberg, who himself skated left. Wasting no time, Lindberg sent a terrific cross ice pass to Leipsic waiting backdoor and from one knee the Winnipeg native sent a bullet of a shot past Bachman.
A perfect execution of swift puck movement and early indications of some chemistry between the two wingers.
As if not learning the lessons of the opening period, three minutes later Utica took another penalty and Toronto made them pay once more.
Another booming shot from Nielsen, this time at the point, and there was Johnsson to score on the rebound
Allowing Toronto to go right back on the power play was hardly smart and the confident Marlies would strike for the fifth time.
Nielsen made a heads up stretch pass to allow Leipsic to enter the Utica zone with speed.
You could sense the fear in the Comets, who back off as the winger drove toward the net before dishing a perfect pass to Johnsson, who scored for the second time in just 1:19 of play.
Only 33 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed and Toronto were up 5-0.
Many opponents may have folded under this siege but to Utica’s credit they kept pressing and were rewarded by getting on the score sheet with two minute remaining.
Jordan Subban instigated the play with a perfect stretch pass down the right boards to put the puck on the stick of Alexandre Grenier. With Toronto on their heels, Grenier’s perfect backdoor feed found Valk, who found the net via a combination of skate and stick.
The Marlies almost reinstated their five goal advantage in the dying seconds but Froese found Bachman impersonating a wall in front of the net, after initial fine work below the goal line from Lindberg.
Toronto began the third period on the penalty kill and Utica would finally take a power play chance.
Subban teed up Grenier in the top of the left circle and his one timer may have been deflected before beating Sparks.
As Sheldon Keefe admitted after the game, the third period was not a good one by his club but this is a young team and lessons will be learnt.
Utica really pushed hard for first half of the final frame, searching for a third goal to harbour thoughts of an improbably comeback.
Toronto didn’t help their cause by taking their third and fourth straight penalties of the game.
They were indebted to Sparks who turned aside Chaput and Subban during the first kill and Chaput again in the second.
Toronto’s goaltender faced more shots in the third period than the first two combined, in what he admitted wasn’t the easiest game for him mentally.
The game rather fizzled out as a contest in the remaining ten minutes of the third period.
The visitors resigned to the fact they were going to lose this opening day contest, while the Marlies looked somewhat out of sorts after an impressive forty minutes of play.
Post Game Notes:
Putting aside the points, Brendan Leipsic was clearly the best player on the ice and was a threat every time he touched the puck. That’s clearly a message sent to management but also a bar he’s set for himself this season.
My second star of the game was Nikita Soshnikov, who was bullying opponents at times. A year on, he appears stronger and wiser and is ready for the call.
Andrew Nielsen had himself a very solid game defensively and was a real threat on the power play.
He doesn’t shoot for shooting’s sake, always looking for a seam and to pick a corner.
I’m looking for consistency from Kasperi Kapanen this season and this performance was a good benchmark. He was unspectacular for the most past but played a solid game and picked up two secondary assists on the power play.
Rich Clue and Brooks Laich were notable healthy scratches but Keefe wants to play the younger guys.
If there are changes for today’s rematch against Utica, expect them either to be other experienced players making way or perhaps Trevor Moore, who appeared to struggle a little at times.
Toronto’s power play was four for seven, while the penalty kill allowed one goal on six opportunities.
Garret Sparks was given the home opener at the AHL level for the first time in his career and made 27 saves,.
Antoine Bibeau looks set to start Sunday’s game and the battle begins between the two despite Kasimir Kaskisuo and Jeff Glass still being in Toronto.