It was far from perfect (or pretty to watch), but the Toronto Marlies ground out an opening night victory on home ice against their nearest North Divisional rivals on Saturday.
Ultimately, the difference between the teams was the special teams battle and the play of Kasimir Kaskisuo — the combination ensured the Marlies never relinquished their lead after 20 minutes.
Understandably, it took a while for both teams to find their feet in the season opener before the first period turned into a special teams battle from the five-minute mark onwards.
It took Toronto just five seconds to score on the first power play of the game, with a familiar name directing traffic: There was no Chris Mueller for Jeremy Bracco to find waiting in the slot, but the right-winger picked out Adam Brooks, whose effort found the pads of Marcus Hogberg before Egor Korshkov finished off the first goal of the new campaign inside five minutes.
The Senators created opportunities to tie the game shortly thereafter, but Kasimir Kaskisuo came up with excellent saves to deny former Marlie Morgan Klimchuk as well as Joseph LaBate.
Belleville also created some excellent looks on their first man advantage, but Toronto held firm before striking for the second time on the power play. Timothy Liljegren let rip with a one-time shot from the top of the left circle that beat Hogberg clean.
Before doubling their lead, Toronto lost the services of Kenny Agostino following a high hit that left the forward sprawled on the ice. As a precaution, Agostino sat out the rest of the game.
A fourth penalty taken by the Senators handed the Marlies yet another man advantage, but try as Pontus Aberg might, he couldn’t find a way to beat Hogberg, with Bracco yet again the main architect.
The Marlies were hugely indebted to Kaskisuo for keeping their lead intact on a penalty kill to end the period. The Finnish netminder robbed Josh Norris on a breakaway with a glove save before making a pair of spectacular right pad saves to turn aside Michael Carcone.
The middle frame was almost exclusively dominated by the Senators, who would have been disappointed not to have leveled the score through 40 minutes.
Kaskisuo made a string of stops, including one of note on Alex Formenton, but he also rode his luck with Vitaly Abramov’s effort somehow rolling across the goal line and away to safety.
Such was the concern of his team’s play that Sheldon Keefe called a timeout less than nine minutes into the second period. It seemed to have a short-term effect on his team — Pierre Engvall tested Hogberg after a really nice give-and-go play with Aberg, but that’s as close to a goal as Toronto came in the second stanza.
Andreas Englund struck the post with a long-range effort, but Toronto’s luck finally ran out when Formenton redirected a centering feed from Carcone for a well-worked goal.
The Marlies played a more cohesive brand of hockey in the third period and were largely in control, but the outcome of the game might have been different had Belleville taken their best chance inside the opening minute: Nick Paul was impeded on a short-handed break and the officials awarded a penalty shot just 50 seconds in.
There has been much talk about prospects Joseph Woll and Ian Scott heading into this season, with the result being that Kaskisuo has become somewhat the forgotten man in the goaltending ranks. This opening-game performance was a bit of a “don’t forget me” statement — his excellent right-pad save to turn aside Paul’s penalty shot denied the Senators a tying goal before Toronto’s goaltender shut the door the rest of the way.
Adam Brooks really should have added an insurance marker at the four-minute mark on a breakaway following a long-outlet pass, but he could only bury his shot into the chest of Hogberg.
Though Toronto fired 14 shots at the net during the final frame, grade-A scoring chances were at a premium and it took a delayed penalty for the Marlies to finally solve the Belleville netminder for a third time. The puck was worked back to Jordan Schmaltz, who pinched into the play between the top of the circles and ripped a picture-perfect shot that found the top left-hand corner of the net.
An empty-net tally from Aberg sealed the deal on a 4-1 victory that flattered Toronto somewhat after 40 minutes of less than stellar play.
A week to practice certainly will be a welcome opportunity for Sheldon Keefe and his group before they head to Manitoba next weekend for a doubleheader.
Post Game Notes
– Step and repeat for Jeremy Bracco, who led the way with three points; two were power-play assists while the third was accrued on the delayed penalty goal as he dominated when Toronto held the extra man.
“He just picked up where he left off,” said Keefe. “When the door opens, Braccs is going to take advantage and make some plays.”
– Kasimir Kaskisuo is under pressure for a variety of reasons this season. Entering the final year of his second contract in Toronto and with a couple of prospects hot on his heels, the Finnish goaltender has to produce the sort of performances we saw from him during the Marlies’ unlikely playoff success last spring. This was a promising start — he stopped 30 of 31 shots with at least five saves on grade-A scoring chances for the Senators.
– Egor Korshkov made the kind of impact I expected after a very strong showing in camp. On top of the goal and assist, he was engaged physically throughout and proved a handful for Belleville on the forecheck and at the net-front on the power play.
“This is a bit of a different team in that we are going to have to rely on our structure to really wear on teams and use our size,” said Keefe. “The skill — it’s going to take some time for that to come out, but we have to really wear on teams physically. We need to do that with good structure.”
– Kenny Agostino was sat for precautionary reasons following a hit to the head. Sheldon Keefe noted he felt better after the game, but the organization will obviously take its time to evaluate with a potential head injury.
-Playing alongside Pierre Engvall and Pontus Aberg, I thought that lined showed a great deal of promise before being prematurely split apart.
– Timothy Liljegren was a workhorse on the blue line and the power-play goal was just rewards for his performance at evens.
“I think he was frankly excited to get down here and get playing and get going,” said Keefe.
– There were too many debutants to go through them all, but Kivihalme was solid if unspectacular, although he was burnt a little on the lone goal. Jordan Schmaltz opened his account and was steady while Ben Harpur failed to impress me with some of his decision making throughout the game in the defensive zone.
– It’s a big year for Adam Brooks who posted two assists and should have added a goal to his account, but the top line with Darren Archibald and Jeremy Bracco either side of him was a constant threat.
– The power play went 2/5 and the penalty kill was perfect on four tries.