Marlies penalty kill looking to get over early-season struggles

Mike Zigomanis has been a major part of Toronto’s penalty-killing success over the last two seasons

TORONTO- Despite early-season struggles with their penalty kill, Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins isn’t ready to give up on the system that has had so much success in the past.

“We’ve been the best penalty-killing team for two years in a row, we haven’t changed anything, we still believe in our system,” said Eakins. “Will it take a while to get back to the middle of the pack? Absolutely. We put ourselves in a real hole with our penalty-kill percentage, but in the end it’s about wins.”

Last season when Toronto found itself down a man, it rarely mattered as the club was able to kill off a league-best 88.5% of penalties, including 33 straight in the post season en route to the Calder Cup final.

But this year the Marlies haven’t been as fortunate when having to make up for a teammates’ mistake. The club has given up 16 goals in 18 games while down a man and their 80.5% efficiency has them sitting 23rd overall in AHL rankings.

They opened the season by allowing a power-play goal in five of their first six outings and in a 6-5 victory against the Oklahoma City Barons on Nov. 13th, Toronto gave up a season-high four goals while down a man. Eakins was ejected from that game in the third period for voicing his displeasure about the amount of time his club had to spend killing five-on-three’s.

“I think that’s one of those games you throw out,” said Eakins. “I’m not worried about it. In a game when we can get two points and give up four power-play goals, so be it.

“Our team isn’t here to have the number-one power play, penalty kill or number-one point scorer. Our team’s here to develop and win.”

Forwards Jerry D’Amigo and Will Acton along with defenders Korbinian Holzer and Mark Fraser make up the number-one penalty-killing unit while forwards Greg Scott, Mike Zigomanis and Carter Ashton and blue liners Paul Ranger and Mike Kostka mostly rotate through as the second line.

In its last five games Toronto has killed off 23-of-25 penalties, which is the most consistent it’s been so far this season.

A positive this year for the Marlies is the amount of offensive production coming from its blue line.

Mike Kostka is sixth in AHL scoring for defencemen with three goals and 15 points in 18 games while Jake Gardiner isn’t far behind with five goals and 12 points in 18 games. Even Mark Fraser, who hadn’t scored since 2009, has picked up two goals in his last five games. Only Jesse Blacker and Dylan Yeo have yet to score a goal and the eight rotating blue liners have a combined 13 goals and 48 points.

“That’s what you want,” said Eakins. “I wanted more from my defencemen and the first thing we did with this group at training camp is we let them know we wanted them to be part of the rush, part of the cycle and part of the offence all the time.”

Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne were benched for the same game in mid-November and both rejoined the lineup looking to prove they don’t belong in the stands.

Kadri responded with 12 points in six games and earned AHL player of the week honors when he returned and now has 16 points in 17 games, which is close to what Eakins expects from him offensively. Colborne, however, has been mostly silent in the point’s column and has just one goal and six points in 16 games, which isn’t cutting it with Eakins.

“I think both of those guys should be point-a-game guys,” said Eakins. “I’ve said it before that I’m not much of a stats guy but, I do hold firm that these guys just on their skill alone, they should be able to put up in that range of a point-a-game.”

Toronto’s next game is this Friday when they head to Rochester to face the Americans.

KYLE CICERELLA

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