Photo credit:Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com
Inside Topi Niemelä’s debut as Toronto clinches North Division’s top spot: Marlies Weekly
By Nick Barden10 months ago
It was a night of nights for the Toronto Marlies on Sunday as they blew through the Belleville Senators, defeating them 6-2, and ultimately, solidifying their place as the AHL’s North Division champions (of the regular season).
These last couple of weeks have arguably been Toronto’s toughest this season. During their seven-game losing streak, the Marlies were shut out three times and only tallied five goals.
A tough bout of adversity after not having much of it throughout the season.
Toronto had a home-and-home, back-to-back series against Belleville this weekend. And after losing the first game, they weren’t allowing themselves to lose another chance at securing the North Division title, especially against one of their biggest rivals.
Six different players scored goals for the Marlies on Sunday, which contributed hugely to pushing them past the Senators.
Alex Steeves, Zach O’Brien, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Logan Shaw, Zach Solow, and Pontus Holmberg all found the back of the net. Shaw, Holmberg, and Der-Arguchintsev also got on the scoresheet in other ways, too, giving them multi-point games.
O’Brien — who’s bounced up and down between the Marlies and Newfoundland Growlers — had a huge goal for the Marlies on the power play, tying the game up at 2-2.
Four of the five players on the ice (Noel Hoefenmayer, Orrin Centazzo, Solow, and O’Brien) have all played with the Growlers, either this season or last. And with Solow also scoring, it proves just how important a three-tier development is in the Maple Leafs organization.
“The Growlers are having a very successful season this year, and it’s because of the players and the culture that they have there,” Moore said after Sunday’s game. “Anytime we’ve pulled guys up, they’ve fit in very well with the group here.
“And Ryan Hardy, our GM, has done a really really good job of finding the right players — the right people — to fill these roles. And regardless of what level they’re at, whether it’s Newfoundland or they’re here with us in the Marlies, to step in and be the right fit for the kind of person we’re looking for in the organization.”
“These guys are buying in,” added Shaw of the players. “They’re getting more ice, they’re starting to grow with their role, and it’s really fun to watch. Everyone’s a part of this, whether you play two games, 10 games, 50 games, we’re trying to be very inclusive with everybody.
“Everyone is stepping up with the ‘next man up’ mentality.”
Marlies host annual Pride game
It was also the Marlies’ annual Pride game on Sunday. The players dawned Pride tape on their sticks and even had custom skate decals made specially for this game.
This is a game, and event, that’s needed to continue the message that hockey needs to be for everyone.
“It’s very special.” Shaw said on Sunday. “I think for us, it’s nice to be a part of it, especially with our team, and having Steph [Klein] (the Marlies’ Assistant Equipment Manager) on board as well, it means a lot for us as a group.
“Sometimes it’s more than just a game. We’re very thankful to be able to support that and make sure everyone knows that our rink is a safe place for everyone to come.”
Topi Niemelä’s North American debut
Ahead of the game, all eyes were on Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemelä, who arrived in Toronto earlier this week and was suiting up for his first-ever AHL game.
The 21-year-old defenceman joined the Marlies after his season in Finland finished, jumping right into the lineup without even having a full practice with the team.
“Enjoy and do your best.” Niemelä said, describing what the coaching staff told him before Sunday’s game.
Everyone talks about how big of a jump it is from the AHL to the NHL, but imagine the transition from Finland to North America? You’re joining a brand new team, who speak a language that isn’t your first language, and on top of that, the game is stronger and faster.
It’s a difficult task when you think about it. But for Niemelä, he wasn’t worried about any of that.
“I was really excited before the game and it was fun to play.” He said on Sunday, smiling from ear to ear. “It was so much faster than in Finland. There, it’s more trap game and here, we just go. It’s much faster, so it’s fun.”
The 21-year-old — in his Marlies debut — was able to find the scoresheet, adding a secondary assist on Logan Shaw’s power play goal. Niemelä was tasked to quarterback the first power play unit on Sunday, placing even more responsibility on the young defenceman.
There are big expectations for Niemelä, who is the Maple Leafs’ top defensive prospect at the moment. And with high expectations comes even more responsibility. The 21-year-old, though, exceeded those very expectations on Sunday.
“He looked confident. He didn’t look nervous at all.” Marlies head coach Greg Moore said Sunday. “He went out and played his game and played true to who he is. He was really good with the puck, he’s a great skater, he was able to give into open ice and attack the middle of the rink.
“Just his smarts and how he finds guys at the right time, beating F1 (forward one) through the middle of the rink, and passing at the right time that improves the conditions of the puck for the next player. It’s really impressive how he thinks the game.”
Toronto only has five games remaining in the regular season before embarking on their quest for the Calder Cup.
But could we see Niemelä in the Marlies lineup for not just the short-term, but the long term (regular season and playoffs) too?
“I mean, certainly with how he performed today, we’ll go back to him,” said Moore. “Obviously it’s one game and we’ve got to see a body of work over time, but it was a great start for him and the power play.”
One final update: Ryan Tverberg was injured in Sunday’s game vs. Belleville and has an upper-body injury, per Moore.
“I’ll have to talk with the medical team about the extent of it, but he wasn’t able to come back.”
Toronto will play two of their remaining five regular season games at home before having a week off to gear up for the Calder Cup playoffs.
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