Toronto hasn’t had much to cheer about in a while. Empty promises by ownership and management made us believe Luca Caputi was a future star in the NHL. Andy Wozniewski, anyone? How about a top NHL defensive pairing of Hal Gil and Brett Lebda?
Fact is, there are some legitimate NHL pieces with the Toronto Marlies now. On Friday, the young buds stormed back to tie their playoff series at 1-1. While William Nylander and Nikita Soshnikov were relatively quiet, there was a lot for Leafs fans to be excited about.
The Marlies were very much asleep for the entirety of game one, as they were shut down by a stingy Devils team. Things didn’t look any better as Zach Hyman went to the penalty box to give the Devils an extended two-man advantage. That’s when the roles started to decide themselves as each Marlie rose to the occasion to make an impact.
Frederik Gauthier, first round pick in 2013, led a heroic charge. The defensive center is an elite penalty killer and shutdown forward, and demonstrated his intelligence on the ice to help kill the two-man advantage. Antoine Bibeau was instrumental in that kill, and finished the game with 40 saves. After starting the game off shaky, Bibeau was an absolute rock in the Marlies 5-3 win. The game-defining penalty kill was monumental as Toronto grabbed a stranglehold of the game. Eventually on a powerplay, T.J. Brennan tied the game at 2.
At that point, Zach Hyman repaid his penalty killing teammates by doing what made him such a successful forward at the NHL level this season. Hyman was a force along the boards, demonstrating relentless work ethic, and fore-check. He scored his first goal by deflecting a Brendan Leipsic shot from the point. The Toronto native added an exclamation point to his performance by scoring the go-ahead goal; a gorgeous wrap around to absolutely ridicule Albany goaltender Scott Wedgewood. He will definitely be an NHL forward next season. Hyman demonstrates gritty play, a never-say-die attitude, and skill to create offense. Simply put, one does not simply beat Zach Hyman to a loose puck.
Brendan Leipsic has been the other stand out for the Marlies through the first two games of round two. The diminutive forward is known for his aggravating tactics, which frustrate his opponents. However, it is clear Leipsic has tools to become a dangerous forward in the NHL. He is an elite skater with very good stickhandling skills. Furthermore, he isn’t dominated along the boards as he plays a physical brand and does not back away from any challenges. The comparisons between Leipsic and Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher are starting to become louder, as Leipsic solidifies himself as one of the top prospects in the Leafs system. Through the first two games of round two, Leipsic has easily been the best forward for the Marlies.
Connor Carrick is an absolute gamer. It seems like when the games mean more, Carrick gets better. He has ten points through five games these playoffs. A solid defenseman and a prime offensive threat to boot, he has been frequently involved in brawls with opponents. Sporting multiple bruises and shiners on his face, asked if he loved the fights and scrums in the playoffs, Carrick responded, “The dog days in January, you grind through those so you can play real meaningful games. You know, that’s the reason you grind all year long so you can play a team like this and a series like this.” Carrick is an underrated defenseman who can play a prominent for the Toronto Maple Leafs next year. He’s a well-spoken individual who doesn’t hide from the media spotlight. When asked if he thinks he’s making a name for himself, Carrick responded, “I don’t know. I just think it’s important to give our team the best chance to win. These guys put together a heck of a regular season. My goal is to come in and try to add any element I could…. that’s just been my focus.”
The Marlies travel to Albany for Games 3,4, and 5 where they need to get at least one win to return home. Top prospects Andreas Johnson and last year’s second round pick Travis Dermott will likely get a look in the line-up at some point in the series.
Main Photo by Graig Abel/Graig Abel Photography