It's been over a year in coming, but two weekends ago, my good hockey friend from school and I finally got around to catching a game together, or in this case, a pair of games together. He's a long-suffering Leafs fan, so we were looking forward to a hard contested battle between our NHL teams' offensively gifted AHL teams. It was also supposed to be my early birthday present. It was going to be great.
Then the injury bug hit.
In rapid succession, down went Jacob de la Rose, Connor Crisp, Nikita Scherbak and Markus Eisenschmid. I remained optimistic though, because the chances were pretty good that I'd get to see Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto, and the IceCaps still had quite a strong forward core.
Then the injury bug struck the Habs as well, resulting in the call ups of Andrighetto, Thomas, Bud Holloway and Dustin Tokarski. Instead of a pair of high-octane games between two scoring powerhouses, it was looking like my birthday present was going to be witnessing the IceCaps get obliterated. Twice. In attendance with a Leafs fan who would heckle me mercilessly all the while.
Obviously that was a little overdramatic, as Michael McCarron, Charles Hudon, Mark Barberio, Daniel Carr and Eddie Pasquale are no slouches, and the Habs sent down Jarred Tinordi for a conditioning stint around the same time. Even so, the situation looked grim when compared with the Nylanders of the world.
Coming into the games, the Marlies were a league best 15-2-1-0, and were undefeated at home in the month of November, and several of their players, led by Nylander, were at the top of the AHL scoring race. Plus, they were a much healthier team than the IceCaps.
On paper, the only thing that looked even going in was the schedule, which had both teams on their second and third consecutive games.
It ended up being fortuitous that Tinordi was in the lineup, because Barberio ended up missing both games with a contusion from blocking a shot the day before. Moreover, the playing field was levelled out a bit by the Leafs calling up Garett Sparks, leaving the Marlies with Bibeau as their starting goalie.
One of the many cool things about the games were seeing Carr, Hudon, Dumont, Jeremy Gregoire and Lernout again, as I had gotten the opportunity to see them play in the terrible preseason game against Chicago. At the time, I had been super impressed by Hudon of course, and liked how well Lernout did playing with Nathan Beaulieu, but the others had hardly made an impression beyond Dumont standing up for Ryan Johnston and Gregoire fighting a Blackhawk for a nasty hit on Dumont.
Saturday's game was a display of skill, as the teams traded goals before the IceCaps scored four unanswered goals to win 6-2. I was especially impressed by the play of Dumont and Ellis who both made a number of really impressive plays on both ends of the ice.
Sunday was a really scrappy game, as the IceCaps scored three goals in the first, and never looked back, captializing on the Marlies' strange decision to play a shaky Bibeau in back to back games. It was also a game of special teams. Four of the six goals in the IceCaps 5-1 win were scored on the powerplay, and there were a combined twenty two penalties, including two fights.
A lot of my impressions of the players resulted from simply not knowing enough about them, but there were a few cases in which even knowing about them didn't prepare me for how good they looked.
Dumont led the team by example, collecting a goal, an assist, and second star of the game on Saturday and Stefan Fournier, of all people, burned the Marlies twice on terrible turnovers.
Tinordi looked a cut above most of his fellows, and there wasn't even a suggestion of rust in the polished all-around game he played. He can really skate, and I really hope he gets to play regularly for the Habs very soon.
While I expected what I saw from Tinordi, Morgan Ellis was a revelation. I was aware that he was good, but I had no notion that he was anywhere near as great as he looked on Saturday and Sunday. He made a few plays that had me picking my jaw up off the ground, and he looked at least as good as Tinord throughout.
In the preseason, I was impressed by how well Lernout played. In these two games, while he certainly did play well, I was more impressed by what a nasty edge he's got. In every board battle he always went for as many extra jabs as he could get away with, and he got away with most of them, much to the disgust of the home crowd. If he played on another team, I'd probably hate him. Not gonna lie, he's a little scary!
Holloway only played in the Sunday game, but it was quite easy to see that he has far more experience and polish than many of the younger forwards on the team. He was everywhere, scoring a goal and collecting two assists on his way to being named first star of the game.
I don't know how I missed it, but I had no idea that McCarron played in all situations, and not only that, but that he plays all situations really well. Like Tinordi, he's a big guy who can really move. He didn't score, but watching the Marlies try to deal with him was quite a sight. On the other hand, I expected Hudon and Carr to be great, and they sure were, generally making the Marlies' lives a defensive nightmare. Between them they had nine points in the two games, and made it really easy to see why the IceCaps have enjoyed so much success this year. Hudon was named second star on Saturday and third star on Sunday.
The call-ups from Brampton, especially Bozon and Miceli also looked like they belonged, and overall, the IceCaps' performances were a testament to just how deep Bergevin and Timmins have made the Canadiens organization. It's really a very exciting prospect. If this was how good the team was missing more than two top lines worth of big names, I can only imagine how exciting they'd be to watch with a healthy roster.
Lastly, while I was, naturally, very interested in the individual players, it was even more interesting to get to see a different level of hockey. Everything was much more frenetic and rough around the edges than in the NHL, which in some ways made it much more exciting to watch - it probably also helped that unlike the time I saw the Habs, the IceCaps both dominated and won, which was a really nice change.
With Carr, Hudon, Andrighetto and Thomas now all in the NHL, the IceCaps face their sternest test of the season, and it might get ugly. But if the two games against the Marlies were anything to go by, it would be unwise to count the IceCaps out. They're surprisingly resilient and remarkably deep.
The future of the Habs is in good hands.