Leipsic leads Marlies to victory in season opener

A vastly different line-up took to the ice for the Toronto Marlies 2016-17 home opener on Saturday, but there was something very familiar about the way the home team dominated its opponent for stretches of the game.

First Period

The first whistle wasn’t blown until 5:35 into the game amid a fast-and-furious start to the season opener. Newcomers Colin Greening and Kerby Rychel tested Comets goaltender Richard Bachman early, and 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 came on Ashton Sautner, before Viktor Loov showed bravery in blocking an effort from Michael Chaput. Valk, one of Utica’s better players throughout the game, jumped on a turnover but the forward whiffed on his attempted shot in the slot.

The Marlies responded with a dominant shift in the Utica zone, with the line of Leipsic-Froese-Lindberg proving hard to contain for Vancouver’s affiliate.

Although Toronto held sway on the shot-clock, the Comets came closest to breaking the deadlock as the period approached the midway mark. A broken play resulted in the puck finding the stick of defenseman Troy Stecher, but his effort rang off the crossbar to the relief of the home crowd.

The first penalty, called with a little over seven minutes remaining, changed the direction of the game. A double minor was bad enough for Utica; while they caught a break when Johnsson’s shot whistled past the far post, 65 seconds into the penalty John Negrin was guilty of a trip, putting them down two men for a full two minutes.

The Marlies came close on numerous occasions, including a top-drawer glove save from Bachman, before Sheldon Keefe called a timeout. Whatever was said at the bench seemed to work: After Toronto won the ensuing face-off, rookie Andrew Nielsen took a pass from Brendan Leipsic at the top of the right circle, casually walked into the high slot, and ripped home a shot glove high on Bachman for his first as a professional (T.J who?).

Still on the powerplay, 48 seconds later the Marlies doubled their lead. Bachman turned aside Kasperi Kapanen’s effort from the point before scrambling to deny Kerby Rychel in front, but on hand was Nikita Soshnikov to finish in tight.

The Marlies were a little sloppy at times late on 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 a goal-scoring opportunity late in the first period.

Second Period

Toronto’s penalty kill stood firm as Utica’s man advantage carried over into the middle frame, but the visitors had some jump to begin the period. The Comets should have halved the deficit five and a half minutes in — Valk was all alone in front after a 2-on-1 break, but he lost the handle trying to maneuver around Sparks.

A second straight penalty was a result of the shifting momentum, but it almost produced a shorthanded goal for the Marlies. Captain Andrew Campbell led a partial breakaway, where his effort was well stopped and the rebound only just eluded Byron Froese. Stetcher came closest to getting Utica on the board at the other end, but Sparks stood tall.

Within seconds of killing off the penalty, the Marlies responded to make it 3-0 with arguably the nicest goal of the game. Off the left wing, Leipsic drove the slot before dropping the puck to Lindberg. Wasting no time, Lindberg sent a terrific cross-ice pass to Leipsic waiting at the backdoor. From one knee, the Winnipeg native sent a bullet of a shot past Bachman — a perfect execution of give-and-go puck movement and early indications of some chemistry between the two wingers.

Still failing to learn their lesson from the opening period, Utica took another penalty three minutes later. Toronto made them pay once more — another booming shot from Nielsen at the point produced a rebound for Johnsson to finish off.

Another Utica penalty sent Toronto right back on the power play, where the confident Marlies man-advantage struck for the fifth time. Nielsen made a heads-up pass to find Leipsic as he gained the Utica zone with speed. The Comets defense backed right 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 into the game, Toronto was up 5-0.

While the game looked over as a contest, the Comets were pressing and were rewarded by with two minutes 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 restored their five-goal advantage in the dying seconds of the second, but Froese was turned aside by Bachman after fine work below the goal line by Lindberg.

Third Period

Toronto began the third period on the penalty kill and Utica finally took advantage of a power play chance. Subban tee’d up Grenier at the top of the left circle and his one-timer may have taken a deflection before beating Sparks.

As Sheldon Keefe admitted after the game, the third period was not a good close-out effort by his club, but score effects were no doubt at play and this was a young team playing its first game of the season. Utica really pushed hard for first half of the final frame, searching for a third goal that could kick start an improbable 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 Sparks admitted wasn’t the easiest game for him mentally.

The game fizzled out as a contest in the remaining ten minutes of the third period, with the visitors looking resigned to the fact they were going to lose the opening day contest, while the Marlies looked somewhat out of sorts after an impressive 40 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 a clear message sent to management.

– My second star of the game was Nikita Soshnikov, who was bullying opponents at times. A year on, he appears stronger, wiser and looks ready for the call.

– Excellent debut for Andrew Nielsen, who had himself a very solid game defensively and was a real threat on the powerplay. He doesn’t shoot for shooting’s sake; always looking for a seam and to pick a corner.

– Management is looking for consistency from Kasperi Kapanen this season, and this performance was a good if unspectacular start to his season. He picked up two secondary assists on the power play and put four shots on goal.

Rich Clue and Brooks Laich were notable healthy scratches as Sheldon Keefe opted to go with the younger lineup. If there are changes for today’s rematch against Utica, expect either other experienced players to make way or perhaps Trevor Moore, who appeared to struggle a little at times.

– Toronto’s powerplay went four for seven, while the penalty kill allowed one goal on six opportunities.

Garret Sparks, given the home opener at the AHL level for the first time in his career, made 27 saves on 29 shots. Antoine Bibeau looks set to start Sunday’s game.

Game Highlights

Game Sheet - Marlies 5 vs. Comets 2

Campbell, AndrewD0002-1
Valiev, RinatD00211
Holl, JustinD00400
Loov, ViktorD01001
Nielsen, AndrewD1202-1
Dermott, TravisD00031
Smith, ColinC00000
Froese, ByronC00010
Johnsson, AndreasLW20240
Leipsic, BrendanLW13031
Soshnikov, NikitaRW10020
Kapanen, KasperiRW02040
Gauthier, FrederikC00010
Rychel, KerbyLW01040
Lindberg, TobiasLW01221
Greening, ColinC0004-1
Timashov, DmytroLW0001-1
Moore, TrevorLW0000-1