The Toronto Marlies played their first game of the season at Air Canada Centre Saturday, but despite a recent run of impressive success, they were flat in just about every area in front of their home crowd and fell 6-2 to the St. John’s IceCaps.
The Baby Buds came into the afternoon riding a five-game win streak, but were thoroughly outworked by the visitors and left head coach Sheldon Keefe searching for answers after the game.
“We thought that, of late, our team has really been in a groove and done a lot of good things, but obviously, it’s a big step backward today,” said Keefe, whose team arrived home in the wee hours of Saturday morning after beating Syracuse 3-1 and suffered Saturday afternoon from too many players working as individuals. “A lot of guys are tired here today and it’s a quick turnaround and a tough schedule for our guys. And in these types of situations where you’re not feeling it, you’ve got to simplify your game even more and really stick to the structure and rely upon that. And we failed to do so. We complicated things when we didn’t need to, and got ourselves in some trouble.”
The Marlies received sub-par performances Saturday from players on whom they’d counted earlier in the season – most notably, star centre William Nylander and goalie Antoine Bibeau – and surrendered the lead three times in the first 40 minutes. They twice fought back to tie the score, but IceCaps forward Stefan Fournier’s second goal of the game late in the second frame put St. John’s in the lead for good. The visitors scored three insurance markers in the third and left a sour taste in the mouths of Marlies players who’ve quickly become accustomed to being on the winning side of the ledger.
“I don’t know what it was, but we just kind of weren’t playing the way we wanted to,” said left winger Brendan Leipsic, who scored his fourth of the season Saturday and was one of the few Marlies who appeared fully-engaged in the game.
“I don’t think (there’s) a reason for us to play that badly like we did today,” added winger Kasperi Kapanen. “We just didn’t get anything going today, and the other team scored when they had chances. Fortunately, we’re going to play against them tomorrow, so we can redeem ourselves.”
The Marlies had beaten the IceCaps in a memorable 9-8 game Nov. 14, but on Saturday – in the first of five games at the Air Canada Centre this year – they were sloppy with the puck, didn’t win their share of battles and weren’t bailed out by Bibeau, who has struggled to regain his early-season form in net since the Leafs returned him to the AHL squad Nov. 11. It’s fair to note every team goes through periods in which they don’t have things go their way, but in a higher-profile game at the home of the Leafs, it was a letdown to come up so short.
“It’s amazing,” Kapanen said of the chance to play at the Air Canada Centre. “That’s the reason why all the guys really wanted to win today, playing in front of the fans and just being at the Air Canada Centre, you can really feel the attention.”
The Marlies, whose other goal in the loss came courtesy of veteran winger Matt Frattin, have now hit the 20-game mark of the regular season with a 15-4-1-0 record. And although they’ll be seeking revenge Sunday at Ricoh Coliseum when they take on the IceCaps again, Keefe said team management has been excited by what it’s seen thus far – Saturday’s effort notwithstanding – from the young group of players the Leafs hope to be employing in the years to come.
“We’ve really felt good about our game here the last few times out especially,” Keefe said. “We were winning a lot of games early, but they were tight games, overtime games, games we let get away on us that we should’ve been in control of and we weren’t. But of late, it’s been better. We’ve been really happy with our process. There’s been more and more good clips showing up everyday of us doing it the right way, the way that we want to do it, and so we want to continue with that and obviously get back to that tomorrow.”