In case you haven’t heard, the Toronto Marlies beat the Rochester Americans last night 4-3 to take a 1-0 lead in their first round best of five playoff series.
The game story and video highlights can be found here on the Marlies website. The readers digest version goes like this: the Marlies took the play to Rochester in the first, yet it was Rochester who finished the first period with a 1-0 lead. The Americans’ goalie, David Leggio, was peppered with shots throughout the game and the Marlies D’Amigo finally broke through in the second period as the two teams went into the third period tied at one. The Marlies then scored two goals to take what looked like a commanding lead, only for Rochester to storm back and tie the game. D’Amigo scored once again with under five minutes to take a final 4-3 lead as the Marlies held on for the win.
I linked the game story because I don’t plan on writing them. Below I have some game notes, interesting tidbits and takeaways from conversations I was lucky to have with the players. I want to supplement the standard game stories that can be found on numerous websites rather than duplicate them. So here it goes:
It’s worth starting with the Marlies’ lines:
Mark Fraser – Korbinian Holzer
Stuart Percy – Jake Gardiner
Juraj Mikus – Simon Gysbers
- In seemingly every playoff series there are always players that score on the opposition’s net at the end of warm up. In this series, Joe Colborne and Phillippe Dupuis waited for everyone to leave the ice before both attempting to score on the empty Rochester net from their own zone. For the record, Colborne scored, Dupuis missed.
- Who a team starts in a game is always interesting. That is who a coach is counting on to set the tone for the rest of the game. In this case, Eakins’ started the Kadri line with Fraser and Holzer as the defense pairing. He started these five players at the beginning of every period.
- Kadri started the game by throwing two solid checks, by the way.
- Speaking of Kadri and physicality, Rochester’s Corey Tropp seemed to be going after him all game – Kadri caused him to take a penalty as well – and did take a solid piece out of Nazem on one hit behind the net. But later on, Kadri hammered him hard on a good back check and then hung around after the whistle to remind Tropp of what just happened. When I spoke with Nazem after the game I asked him if he and Tropp had some sort of past history that I wasn’t aware of and he told me he had no idea who Tropp was before tonight.
- Now I obviously would not ever compare Nazem Kadri to Alex Ovechkin, but one thing they both do that is very similar is find out who is targeting them, and then in turn target those players physically and punish them instead. In the Marlies’ second last game against Rochester this year, Leggio – as stated, the Americans’ goalie – for some inexplicable reason started chirping Kadri. Last night after the game we had a laugh as Clayton Hansler asked him about that and Kadri in more words basically said that he is waiting to put a few by him in this series so he can really give it to him. Kadri’s at his best when he’s physical, playing on the edge, getting in the corners and looking to get dirty.
- As an aside to that, Kadri came out of the gates with his two solid hits, but then began forcing the play really early to try and make an impact offensively. He tried a toe-drag on the power play that got stopped easily and a few shifts later he tried to 360 around an opponent in the offensive zone and got stopped. As the game went on though, Kadri settled down and cut that out of his game. On one particular play he was at the end of his shift and looked like he was going to foolishly attempt to dangle a defense man off the rush but recognized the situation and shot it on the goalie to get a whistle.
- Stuart Percy had a bit of a rough first shift as he got caught holding onto the puck a little too long and got pick pocketed. But really, after that, he played a solid game. The best part of Percy’s game was by far his puck movement – not a surprise – as he flashed every kind of pass imaginable, whether that be cross ice, up ice, tape-to-tape right up the middle, or hitting guys with well timed and placed bank passes. He really showed off all the passing tools in his arsenal and fit in nicely beside Gardiner as a defensive conscience beside the dynamic offensive defenseman.
- Watching Percy really makes you realize how much of a shame it is that he was injured this season. Stuart only played 34 regular season OHL games, and then six more playoff ones. It serves no purpose to do so, but you Â can’t help but wonder how much further he could be along had he played the whole season.
- On a constructive note, you’d like to see Percy working on his shot this summer as one area to improve. He had a few opportunities to put pucks on net during the game but instead looked to make passes or just get it in deep. More than anything, it’s a sign of a guy who isn’t very confident in his shot. Especially when he’s passing on clear shooting opportunities.
- In case you’re wondering, Jesse Blacker didn’t play because he injured his shoulder a few weeks ago.
- Saw a few reporters asking Eakins about the Percy-Gardiner pairing as a future pairing for the Leafs, but really, it’s way to early to say something like that. If the Marlies go far in the playoffs and those two stick together throughout the ride, we can chat about it. But this early? No way. Let’s see if they even last as a pairing through round one first.
- A player who did not lack in confidence? Jake Gardiner. Something I realized about Gardiner pretty early on in his pro career is that he can play down to his opponents when they are on a lower level than him. This became apparent to me during the rookie tournament, where I thought his talent showed, but that he lacked the necessary refinement defensively for the pro game. Obviously I was wrong. That said, when Gardiner was sent down to the Marlies, Eakins’ raised similar concerns – and eyebrows – when he said, “We don’t want to take those (offensive gifts) away, but we’ll need more commitment in his own zone.” Now, Gardiner does need work on his game in his own end, but problems defensively at a level like this, to me, stem more from him wanting to be really offensive than actually struggling defensively. Let’s face it, he’s an amazing skater with fantastic vision; he could very well be the fastest skating defenseman in the AHL playoffs right now and he wants to use it. Gardiner’s biggest gaffe of the night came in the first period when he thought he had more time than he did in his own zone behind the net with the puck, but upon realizing the fore check had already arrived, he stumbled and lost the puck and then Rochester hemmed the Marlies in their zone for the rest of the shift.
- For Eakins’ part, he used Fraser-Holzer as the Marlies shut down pairing, thus freeing up Gardiner to roam much more offensively. However, at the end of the game when the Marlies were holding onto their one-goal lead, it was Gardiner out there with Holzer, not Fraser.
- By the way, while Eakins would never say what I just did, he somewhat implied it in the post game as he was talking about Gardiner’s abilities in comparison to the rest of the league and where he’s at as a player. I’m not implying Gardiner doesn’t care about defense at this level because he’s faster than everyone else, but I would definitely say that he’s focusing much more making things happen with the puck then without it.
- Also, I was chatting with Marlies play-by-play man Jon Abbott after the game and he said the power play was leaps and bounds more dangerous with Gardiner back there quarterbacking it compared to anything else they did all season. In one play during five-on-five hockey, Gardiner actually got the puck from the right point, walked the blue line all the way to the left point, still had no options, skated down to the corner, then around the net, and then made a play with the puck; essentially skating in a full “O” around the offensive zone with the puck on his stick.
- Joe Colborne had an interesting game, to say the least. He had three odd man rushes where he had the puck, and the results were as follows:
The first: Colborne entered the zone with a full head of steam, stopped with the puck, then tried to thread the needle but the pass got broken up.
The second: Ashton entered the zone with the puck, it got knocked over to Colborne, who made a neat little stick handle and found Matt Frattin, who buried it home.
The third: Colborne entered the zone with the puck, tried to force a pass over to the trailing Marlies’ forward but a combination of a great back check and reading of the play knocked the puck away and Rochester turned up ice and scored the tying goal. Colborne was noticeably upset afterward.
- The intriguing thing about Colborne is that when he’s attacking on the rush, he doesn’t look to put his shoulder down at all and drive the net as a power forward. However, when the Marlies are in the zone and working their cycle, he will look to drive the net hard with the puck on his stick and just power his way to the net like a true power forward. He had one play in the first where he just barreled his way to the net and created a great scoring chance just by using his sheer size and strength.
- Guys like Colborne and Kadri receive a lot of the talk – and rightfully so – but at the end of the game when the Marlies got the lead, Greg Scott moved up to the top line with Hamilton and Zigomanis, and Will Acton moved up to the second line between Ashton and Frattin.
- Kadri and I talked about that after the game and he said it is something that Eakins and himself have talked about and it’s something he understands. But, as he said to me, “I’d play the full 60 minutes if they let me, I want to be out there as much as possible.” Nobody ever said he was a shutdown player, and he’s not about to become one. He understands why Scott replaces him in those situations.
- I also asked Kadri if he was a little surprised that he isn’t playing with Matt Frattin at all, especially since they lit up the AHL together earlier in the year. He told me that he really likes playing with Frattin, that they have great chemistry together and he figures that down the road he’ll probably end up with Frattin at some point when Eakins wants to change things up by rocking the lines a little bit.
- As for Frattin’s game last night, he had a ton of chances. He launched six shots on net including one on a two on one Â and another in close in the slot that he got robbed on. Frattin also fanned on a one-timer around the top of the circle and had a partial breakaway with under two minutes left that saw his stick get slashed out of hands, drawing a penalty that more or less sealed the game. He was buzzing offensively all night, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that he didn’t dominate the game physically. Frattin did throw some hits and mix it up, so it isn’t as if he didn’t make his presence known, but more than anything he was generating chances offensively and putting pucks on net.
- Wasn’t a surprise to see Jerry D’Amigo play well in a big game. He made his presence known to Leaf fans on the big World Juniors stage and he had a solid – albeit short – playoff showing in the OHL last year. When the AHL playoffs came rolling around, I fully expected him to step up his game and he did. D’Amigo scored two goals, but he was also a primary penalty killer – other penalty killers on the night were Acton, Scott, Zigomanis, Dupuis, Hamilton – and he also drew a penalty on a penalty kill to make it 4-on-4. After the game I didn’t ask him anything specifically, but he just looked like a guy who really loved the spot light and big moments of intense games. He also has a heck of a beard already.
- To end the game, the Marlies had a face off in their own end and Eakins put out Zigomanis, Dupuis, Scott, and as mentioned already, Holzer and Gardiner. Then as soon as the Marlies got the puck out, Dupuis raced to the bench so that D’Amigo could replace him. That’s who Eakins ended the game with.
- Thought Scrivens fought the puck a bit. I asked him if that was a fair comment after the game and he sort of gave me a “yes but no.” I asked him if it was playoff jitters and he said not really, although later on in the conversation he did say he was nervous in the afternoon before coming to the rink. Scrivens pointed out to me the shot totals, which was something I thought about afterward. When you look at it, Rochester had six shots on net in the first period, then seven more in the second, so going into the third period they had a total of 13 shots on net. So at first what I thought was fighting the puck, turned out more to be a goalie who never really got in the groove of things because Rochester was hardly getting any shots on net. Plus, as Scrivens cliched to me, “the only stat that matters now is wins.” So did Scrivens play lights out? Hardly. But he did what he had to despite never really getting into the groove.
The two guys I mainly chatted with were Nazem Kadri and Ben Scrivens. Here were a few more things we talked about:
- Around a week ago Gary Roberts raised some eye brows by tweeting Don Cherry about Nazem Kadri and working out with him to make the team. I asked Kadri about it because it intrigued me and he said he had no idea where it came from. Obviously Kadri is focusing on this playoff run and not off-season workouts so he has no idea what his plans are when it comes to that, but I found it peculiar that he’s never even talked to Gary Roberts before. He said he met Roberts when HE was a member of the Leafs way back when. Maybe Gary was just looking to stir things up? Kadri was aware of the tweet, by the way.
- Ben Scrivens and I had a nice chat about Francois Allaire so I’ll share some of the highlights here. Now I’m not about to ask Scrivens if he knows whether or not Allaire will be back next year because that’s not something he would know, but as soon as I brought up the very subject he was quick to note that Allaire was in the building last night watching the game – not really the sounds of someone who is about to leave. Another quick retort he had? “Did Burke say that?” He defended Allaire early because I guess he assumed I was against him or something.
- There seems to be this perception going around that Allaire’s style is an issue, but this is worth noting: if you’re celebrating a possible Allaire exit, his influence sounds like it will still be prevalent. Scrivens told me that he is already scheduled to go to Allaire’s camp in Switzerland this summer and regardless of what Allaire’s doing next year, he’s still going to go to him as a mentor and goalie coach and attend his camps and such. So at least when it comes to Scrivens, he isn’t cutting that cord anytime soon. If you didn’t know, Scrivens has been with Allaire for over a decade now. He said he’s been with him since around 14 years old.
- Scrivens and I didn’t get into anything too technical or specific when it comes to Allaire’s style, but he did say, “it’s like anything, if he tells someone to do something and they don’t, whose fault is it?” Now, to be very, very clear, he wasn’t implying or saying in any way that there’s some sort of disconnect between Allaire and the goalies, he was talking about the fact that there’s been this learning curve going on here; Allaire is dealing with a bunch of very green goalies and goaltending takes time to develop and master.
- I would personally make the connection here to Ken Hitchcock. When he got fired from Columbus many believed that his kind of style wasn’t possible anymore in “today’s NHL” and that he needed to be more offensive and in tune with today’s game. Sound familiar to criticism’s of Allaire’s blocking style? Now look. All of a sudden Hitchcock gets a team that’s more to his style and he’s doing great again. As Scrivens was saying to me, coaches don’t get this far and then suddenly become bad coaches.
- Also worth mentioning that should Allaire leave, the Leafs have to bring in a new goalie coach, and what does that mean? Time will be needed to get the goalies and the new potential coach on the same page. A new coach would represent more than a new voice, it would mean new tweaks to a goalies game and subtle differences. I don’t want to say changes, because as Scrivens and I were discussing, a goalie obviously isn’t going to change his game entirely. But there is a learning curve.
- As for all the Allaire criticism? Scrivens had a great line, “the media could write about the reason the Leafs were losing is because the ice is white instead of blue, and people would believe it.” He’s a great person to talk to.
To wrap up, I wanted to say that I don’t know if this is what people expected from me going to the game with a press pass, or if you guys wanted something different, but if you did or didn’t like this, definitely let me know on here or Twitter; I’m always open to suggestions and I’m always trying to improve.
By the way, announced attendance was 6,244 at the Marlies game, and while the people who were there were loud, it was a tad disappointing to not see the place sold out. If you live in or close to Toronto, I highly recommend attending a game if you can. It’s good hockey, it’s a great arena, the fans there actually want to/make noise, and there are a ton of players on the Marlies who will eventually be wearing Leaf jerseys – All around worth it.