An opening season win, on the strength of sizzling power play, firing three goals turned ice cold and blanked in a dozen opportunities.
The power play was a point of contention last season. With a static umbrella formation with little movement and net presence, the Marlies power play became easy to defend against, and ended up scoring 10 goals on 84 opportunities in the playoffs (11.9%), including a 2-for-26 run in the Calder Cup Finals.
A difference in the structure had two point men and a lot of the puck movement down low. When either point men Jake Gardiner or Mike Kostka jumped in down low, they had coverage and support.
Sunday’s showing against the Lake Erie Monsters showed the tendency of players trying to force the play when there are few options, and how it evolved as the game wore on and urgency became a factor. This was evident most in the Marlies star blueliner and forwards, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri.
The display of the skill set was front and center, often the fastest player on the ice, controlling the play and rushing the puck with ease, while showing off the ability to walk in off the point. During the power play opportunities versus the Monsters, I found him seemingly second guessing his choice or change his mind mid-swing, a distinct difference between a fake swing. His plays seemed forced, less creative and more rigid and trying too hard to do everything.
Lake Erie took space away effectively and he reacted to the lack of time. The Marlies were better with the puck moving down low with the man advantage and opening up the space up top for point shots. Sometimes when the puck could have been in a bit deeper, Gardiner overhandled it at the line, even more so and while time was running out. Gardiner’s compete and urgency made him more individualistic originating from a will to score rather than through creative means. It’s an individualistic tendency that manifests itself when a frustrated group dynamic is not working.
I keyed in on a play where he forced Cameron Gaunce to use his hands and stick when he couldn’t contain him on the rush. He carried the puck with confidence, showing off his top end speed and driving the defense back, best exhibited on his pass to Gardiner on the Marlies season opening goal. Identified distribution outlets and used teammates more efficiently and strategically as he drew players to him to create some space.
He was a bit unpredictable in passes off the rush, sometimes even catching his teammates off guard. Like Gardiner, as the game wore on, he tried to force plays unsuccessfully, especially when the Monsters put up more defensive stance in the third stanza. He skated himself into pincers along the boards cut off of space without making a play and abandonned the distribution game he showed in the first half of the game. Compete level was high and he was involved on every shift, which is expected from a player earmarked for the NHL.
Some other Marlies Notes:
The tendency that made him an early season success in 2011-12 was the way he would drive the net, using his size and reach to bull his way through defense. Along with great stick skills, he added upper body strength and showed more will to make individual forays, complimenting his playmaking ability. After the issue with his hand, he fell back into the perimeter and became less effective, evidenced by his second half collapse in offensive production.
I felt he missed this drive in the opening two games and made periodic appearances in the dirty areas of the ice. His playmaking skills were on point, with crisp passes, and slick plays once the zone was taken, but he missed the net drive and even his presence in front. If he’s going to return to the scoring forward he’s expected to become, he needs to rediscover that drive. He showed hustle to hurry defenseman making good use of that reach and quickness and was a more stable presence in the defensive zone.
Showed strength on his feet, especially when challenged in the corners and along the boards. Skates himself into situations where he has to get rid of the puck instead of creating a play. Lacks some quickness in his hands stick handling, but has a quick hard release. Hunched over skating sride and seems to always be bent over. It’s a back injury waiting to happen. He really uses his body well, fights hard in traffic and for puck battles along the boards. Leverages his weight to fight for the inside track on defenders. Will only benefit from an upgrade in strength and some upper body mass to better compete with the bigger professional players. A good start in his first pro season.