The Toronto Marlies have picked up points in their past 16-consecutive games, and throughout the course of the point streak, they’ve downright dominated their opponents.
They’ve outscored their opponents, 65-22, and out-shot them, 490-436, too. Their top-ranked PK unit has continued to be red-hot, killing off 50 of their last 52 penalty kill’s (96%). And as I discussed two weeks ago, the Marlies goaltending has been the backbone of their team all season long, and even their play has hit an extra gear over the last little while.
#Marlies goaltenders have been a huge reason why they've picked up points in their last 16 games. Take a look at their numbers over that span:
Garret Sparks: 9-0-1 record, 2 SO, .946 sv%, 1.55 GAA,
Calvin Pickard: 6-0 record, 1 SO, .961 sv%, 1.00 GAA.#Leafs
— Jacob Stoller (@NHLStoller) February 12, 2018
“When we get in tight games, we find a way to win no matter what,” said Marlies defenceman Andrew Nielsen after the team’s 3-1 defeat against Binghamton on Saturday night. “Some nights it’s clicking, some nights it’s not—when the offence is going, it’s fun to watch—even when it’s not going on nights like this, we still find a way to grind out a win.”
Arguably, the most telling stat of all is that the Marlies have substantially outscored their opponents in the third period, 23-6. Their dominance in the final frame stems from the team’s confidence in their abilities, according to forward Adam Brooks. “We have great goalies that we know are going to hold it down and right from the backend up, I think we’re confident with our lineup–when [team’s start to catch up], there’s no panic in our game–and we just keep going.”
As it stands now, the Marlies are on track for 110 points, which places Toronto’s affiliate on track to have one of the best regular season’s in AHL history, something that coach Keefe wasn’t aware of when it was brought up by a reporter.
“I [was not] aware, but thanks for bringing that to my attention,” said Keefe with a chuckle. “We know good things are happening around us and we’re not oblivious to that, but, I’ve coached good team’s in the past, and I know it’s a long season and I know things get real hard.
“We need to be good every day no matter who we’re playing, and play at a really high level as though we’re playing playoff-type-hockey—and that’s challenging to do, with the AHL schedule being what is, the success that we’ve been having— but as a coaching staff [that’s] what we’re trying to do and that’s what we’re trying to get our players to bring every single day that they come to the rink.”
Nielsen enduring sophomore slump
One-year removed from leading all Marlies defenceman in scoring as a rookie, Andrew Nielsen is in the midst of a sophomore slump.
“I think it’s natural,” said Lethbridge Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio, who coached Nielsen in 2015-2016. “If a guy comes in and has a great first year, I think sometime’s it’s easy to [think that] when you come back, it’ll be easier their second year just because, but it’s not easier.”
Nielsen, unlike the majority of junior hockey stars, made a big splash in his rookie AHL season.
He became a key cog on the Marlies power play, recording 20 of his 39 points on the man-advantage. His 0.52 point per game pace placed him 5th amongst AHL rookie defenceman and all-the-while maintaining a physical component to his game.
From the start of his AHL career, and with the quick success that came with it, the spotlight was on Nielsen.
“He’s in his second year in the league now and scored a lot of goals last year— when you do that, the radar comes on you and people know who you are and they’re taking away your shot,” said Keefe. “You got to find different ways to generate looks and make plays.”
But this year, with Calle Rosen and Timothy Liljegren joining the team’s power play this season, Nielsen has seen a substantial reduction in power play minutes, with only three power-play points to show for, this season. Scoring at a 0.27 point-per-game pace, Nielsen’s offensive production this season is no where near the 0.52 point per game pace he was playing at last year.
His drop in offensive production is concerning, and Nielsen will be the first to tell you his overall game needs some fine-tuning.
“I mean, last year I was so focused on getting points and scoring goals that my defence kind of took a hit,” said Nielsen, who snapped a 10-game goal draught on Sunday. “This year I think I’ve focused too much on defence and not just my overall game and I still got to get better at playing defence.”
What’s even more troubling than Nielsen’s offensive struggles, is his penalty minute increase from last season. Nielsen’s 100 PIM this season, which already surpassed his 80 PIM total from last year, leads all Marlies skaters by a landslide.
Andreas Borgman makes his Marlies debut.
Mike Babcock is a picky guy.
We saw him be picky when it came to the development of Kasperi Kapanen, where you could make a solid case that Kapanen had been suited for NHL-action for quite some time, but was over-rippined in the minors over the last two years, in an effort to enhance his penalty killing ability.
It was only once Kapanen became a solid PK (and even strength) player at the AHL level for quite some time, that he was brought up to the Leafs for what appears to be a full-time basis.
The same goes for Roman Polak, who seems to have carved out the role as the team-mentor, which has factored into him gaining the trust of Babcock, and as a result of that, remaining in the lineup.
So what can Borgman do to gain Babcock’s trust down the road? It starts with gaining more confidence and handling the puck more often, which he’s already starting to do.
Borgman doesn't quit.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) February 11, 2018
“Yeah of course, it’s good for your confidence to get a few goals and stuff like that,” said Borgman. “But that’s not my main focus, it’s more the defensive stuff and getting better in box play and stuff like that.”
While Borgman may be zeroed in on fixing the little things that could help him be a more effective third-pairing defender, taking some time to be a top-end guy with the Marlies, at least for the next little bit, could go a long way.
“[The AHL] is a little more relaxed environment,” said Keefe. It can be stressful playing in the NHL and playing as a young guy trying to find your way, [whereas] here, we just hope that he can settle in and use his skills to gain some confidence and make plays.”
It seemed like there were two options as to what Nikita Soshnikov’s fate would be after his five-game conditioning stint with the Marlies concluded. Either a) the Leafs freed up a roster spot for Soshnikov or B) Soshnikov was traded.
But there turned out to be a third option after all, and that was option C) place Soshnikov on the IR, a surprising move, especially when. you take Keefe’s praise of Sosh into consideration.
“I think he played well and played a lot in every game that he played,” said Keefe. “[He] seemed to handle it well, today was his third game in three days.”
Keefe went on to say he was one of the most upbeat players on the team and was relied on heavily because of that.
Here’s the full Keefe quote on Soshnikov, which is funnier today: pic.twitter.com/m1QduxeliC
— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) February 12, 2018
Soshnikov recorded five points through the five-game-conditioning loan.