For the Toronto Marlies, last year’s playoffs had a bit of a different atmosphere. With the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs, the team was heavily focused on by fans, media, and the parent club alike. Last year’s team was filled with NHL talent; eight players (Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Ryan Hamilton, Mark Fraser, Colton Orr, and Ben Scrivens) are currently calling the Air Canada Centre their home. Ricoh Coliseum was full and loud, with fans looking for hockey to be excited about in the early spring months. Mainstream media that typically rolled their eyes at the AHL were around to see what was up. It was a unique situation, and an exciting one as the blue and white headed to the Calder Cup Finals before being swept by the Norfolk Admirals.
This year is a different situation. While there are still a lot of young players (eight rookies, and several other prospect-aged players) with NHL potential, their time is still a ways a way. While currently first in AHL playoff attendance, the Marlies have averaged 1200 fewer tickets sold per game than last year, and 900 less than the regular season. Not a big deal if it was a loud crowd, but the idea of a "playoff atmosphere" isn’t existant. As for the media, they’re all camping outside Dion Phaneuf’s locker stall. That’s really what all of these changes are – byproducts of the Leafs finally getting into the post season. Which, at the end of the day, is what you want; more than anything, your AHL team is there to boost up the big club.
That said, there are some similarities to last years group. Both teams finished second in the Western Conference. Both have stellar goaltending and depth on defence to thank for success down the stretch, and more immediately relevant, both entered the first round to face the Rochester Americans. Going into this weekend, two traditions seemed likely; David Leggio would be in Rochester’s net (23 straight starts vs. Toronto), and the Marlies would probably be victorious at the final buzzer (wins in 16 of 17 vs. Rochester). One of these was snapped. Which one? Well…
The series opened with Rochester desperate to change the tone set over the past year or so between these two teams, with pushing and shoving at every whistle. The likes of Brad Ross and Jerry D’Amigo were more than happy to give the Amerks reason to, perhaps countering the effectiveness of their plan to instigate. The referees were happy to let them go without roughing calls, but that may have been due to all the other minor penalties that had to be called, including seven in the first period alone. Despite all that, the first goal came even strength, courtesy of a Greg Scott wrist shot. He wasn’t done for the night either, tipping a Tim Connolly point shot to widen the gap six minutes afterwards. Zemgus Girgensons responded less than a minute later with a goal, and kept the game interesting going into the second period.
That second period was one that Toronto would be happy to forget about. Dallas Eakins’ description of it was "probably the worst period of hockey I’ve seen this team play in four years, and it was a head shaker. It was one of those ones where it wasn’t just seven or eight guys; it was every guy, except for our goalie". It’s hard to disagree. The team took more penalties (4) than it did shots (3), and left Drew MacIntyre on his own for nineteen shots. Two of them went by him; a shorthanded tally by Cody McCormick (that Greg McKegg responded to with a goal of his own by the end of the powerplay), and Girgensons’ second of the night. One of his saves (which has been all over the everywhere) defied common logic, and was the exclamation point on a bailout effort to keep the team tied after forty minutes.
Toronto recovered in the third. Paul Ranger scored from the point at the five minute mark to give the Marlies the lead, and the team never looked back. With four and a half to go, Jerry D’Amigo made a fantastic heads up play to feed Greg Scott and get him his hat trick goal. Still not done, Scott added an empty netter to seal a 6-3 victory.
I mentioned snapped traditions in the intro, and this was the night that brought us one. David Leggio watched this game from the bench as Matt Hackett took his place. Would it be enough to change his teams fortunes?
The first period came and went without a goal, but not without opportunities. Dylan Yeo took the game’s first penalty, going off for goaltender interference. In his defence, he was moved up to forward for this game. The penalty was one of eight combined over the 20 minutes, that lead to four unsuccessful powerplays between the two teams.
Midway through the second period, with McCormick in the box for Rochester, Mike Zigomanis scored the game’s first goal, picking up a rebound in front of the net. More powerplay opportunities were traded between the two teams – thirteen combined over the course of the game, but the score stayed at 1-0 to end the middle frame.
Early in the third period, Hackett found himself behind the net. Greg McKegg stripped the puck off of him, and Jerry D’Amigo tucked in what was effectively an empty netter. That was it for Toronto’s goals, but not the game. The final two minutes seemed to take forever, with repeated icings, and a scrum with eight seconds to go that saw McCormick spear Ranger and get tossed out of the game. Those final seconds must have been longer to MacIntyre than anyone else, as he was yet to get a shoutout in Toronto until this point, but they finally ticked away and the Marlies took a 2-0 series lead from a 2-0 game.
- Between "the save" on Saturday and the shutout on Sunday, this may have been Drew MacIntyre’s best weekend yet. Undoubtedly the post-lockout MVP of this team, he seems to have even more to prove to a Rochester team who kept him on the bench for most of last year.
- Last year saw Jerry D’Amigo take over the Rochester series. While Greg Scott’s 4 goal performance may have overshadowed the other skaters a bit, D’Amigo has a goal and three assists after two games. Needless to say, I think he likes facing this team.
- Mike Komisarek missed the first game, leading many to think he was a healthy scratch. It’s vaguely true, in the sense that he could have played, but Eakins didn’t feel that he was fully healthy and left him out. So yes, it wasn’t forced, but it was precautionary.
- Morgan Rielly had no points this weekend, but I wouldn’t be all that concerned. He’s looked very good in controlling the powerplay, and the numbers will match that in due time.
- That powerplay, by the way, was a solid and frequent 4/15. The penalty kill stayed strong at 11 for 11. A good weekend for the special teams.
- Korbinian Holzer took quite a few penalty minutes – 8 in the first game, 10 in the second, but was actually much more disciplined on Sunday, getting those 10 in that final scrum. Eakins mentioned being less than impressed by his performance in the first game.
- Carter Ashton is back from a foot injury, and picked up a point on Saturday. Threw a big hit on Sunday as well. A good showing.
- I mentioned attendance earlier; it’s worth nothing that TFC and the Leafs played at home on Saturday, and getting anywhere downtown this weekend was disastrous. Combine that with good weather, and a lot of people seemed to buy tickets and didn’t show up. I can’t entirely blame them.
- Toronto now has as many as three attempts to close this series, the first coming on Wednesday in Rochester. History indicates that you can get your brooms out, but I still wouldn’t hold my breath just yet. The playoffs can lead to interesting results.