TORONTO - On a rare Saturday night, they were the main attraction in the city.
National Hockey League talent was on display at the Ricoh Coliseum as the Marlies raced out to a 3-1 season-opening victory, topping the Rochester Americans in front of a boisterous sold-out crowd. Ryan Hamilton scored twice, Jake Gardiner added another and Ben Scrivens made 20 saves in an up-tempo tilt which featured a good amount of skill.
"I thought the speed out there today was kind of like what the [Calder Cup] finals were last year and usually it's not like that," said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. "Usually there's young players getting their feet wet and it's a real scrambly night and the pace is average, but that was some high pace out there, these guys are moving."
An ongoing and deeply dispiriting lockout has cast a bright light on the upward-trending Marlies, shifting if ever so slightly the all-consuming focus of a Leafs town toward their sometimes ignored minor-league affiliate. A Calder Cup finalist last season, the Marlies raced out to a thorough opening night victory behind strong efforts from that lending NHL talent, including Gardiner, last year's rookie standout, who opened the scoring on a nifty drop-feed from Nazem Kadri. "The key to all of this is to make sure those NHL guys don't fall into an American League pace, that they pull the pace, they bring everybody with them and that's what happened tonight," said Eakins.
The American League has gotten a while lot better as a result of the latest NHL work stoppage, boosting the competition and general skill level with an influx of youthful top-end talent. Nine players on the Marlies suited up in the NHL last season (back-up Jussi Rynnas not withstanding) with others such as Paul Ranger and Mike Zigomanis also with experience at the game's highest level. They were opposed by an Americans squad that had much of its own NHL quality on hand, including Cody Hodgson, Luke Adam, Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb.
"This year with no NHL there's a lot of talent and a lot of guys that can make plays, that's my type of hockey," said Kadri.
"It'll be interesting to see as we play teams throughout the league," added Scrivens, "because we look around the room and we go 'Wow, we've got a pretty good roster' and then even Rochester has got a bunch of guys who are coming down [to the AHL], Luke Adam and Hodgson and Foligno, they've got a pretty solid lineup too.
"It's going to be really interesting once we play some other teams and see some other loaded lineups and be able to see where we stack up against those teams."
Jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead in the opening frame on goals from Gardiner and Hamilton, the Marlies got "cute" with turnovers in the second – yielding a powerplay goal to Foligno – before nailing down the victory with a second Hamilton marker in the third. All three goals from the home side (four in total) were scored with the man advantage, the injection of skill apparent with the additions of Aucoin, Ranger and Mike Kostka.