Four months since we last saw them and not much has changed for the Toronto Marlies.
They’re still the only winning pro sports team in Toronto — the Blue Jays, Argos and Toronto FC couldn’t make it a group of two since the Marlies were last on the ice — and still the most successful sporting department of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
PHOTOS:Toronto Marlies home opener
A 3-1 win in their season opener over the Rochester Americans on Saturday wasn’t exactly picking up where they left off, since they lost their last four games last spring while being swept in the Calder Cup final.
But in a larger sense, it was a continuation. The same strong team, the same NHL-ready head coach and largely the same cast of characters courtesy of the NHL lockout. With strong goaltending, a mobile defence corps and a solid team concept, even the presence of loads of NHL players on other AHL rosters isn’t likely to alter the fact the Marlies will again be one of the teams to beat in the AHL.
The Amerks, after all, had lots of NHL-quality talent themselves, from Cody Hodgson to Marcus Foligno to Luke Adam, but they were badly outshot and competitive for only one of three periods at the Ricoh Coliseum after playing the night before.
But while it’s largely status quo for the Marlies in terms of where they sit in the AHL, eight years of trying appears to have finally brought about a decisive turnaround in the profile of the organization to the point they are both a known commodity in the city and a highly regarded one.
It’s not apples to apples because of the lockout, but a sellout crowd of 7,921 showed up Saturday, compared to an opening night audience last year of 6,084. That’s a 30 per cent increase in one year, and it wasn’t because lots of ACC platinum seat holders descended upon the Ricoh demanding sushi.
Beyond that, this has become a model AHL franchise, arguably the best. Free agents Keith Aucoin and Mike Kostka evidently thought so when they left their clubs for Toronto during the summer, and anyone who knows the AHL can confirm the quality of facilities enjoyed by the Marlies and the way in which they basically operate as a pseudo-NHL franchise has created a unique environment.
That, plus they can put on a show.
With Nazem Kadri flying and leading the way, demonstrating this notion that the Leaf organization has maltreated him is about the most ridiculous hockey idea out there, the Marlies entertained the packed crowd and scored some pretty goals. Kadri set up Jake Gardiner for the first one, captain Ryan Hamilton finished off a pretty three-way passing play with Joe Colborne and Mike Zigomanis for the second and Hamilton also potted the third on a strong power move.
The Amerks, driven to distraction by newcomer Leo Komarov all game long, did get to within 2-1, and after their goal by Foligno they followed up with a breakaway attempt by Maxime Legault that Ben Scrivens turned away but could have made for a very different game.
Kadri, his separated left shoulder from the playoffs healed, is anything but unhappy or in a sulk after his much-celebrated body fat imbroglio at training camp.
The 22-year-old centre with the magical hands got the loudest cheer in the pre-game introductions, and he suggested there’s an awareness now of the Marlies that wasn’t there before last spring’s playoff run.
Roll it all together — the entertainment, the affordability, the presence of NHL-quality players and, yes, the winning — and the Marlies are something of a unique commodity in this town.
Eight years after they started, it must feel nice to be appreciated.