Marlies chock full of stud defenders

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:53 PM ET

When the Toronto Marlies' defence is discussed, most outsiders start by carping about the Maple Leafs paying off Jeff Finger $3.5 million US to lay low at Ricoh the past two seasons.

But there could be significant blueline traffic headed the other way, based on how the farm team's blueline is structured in the American Hockey League playoffs.

The Marlies have developed one of the best shutdown pairings with Korbinian Holzer and Mark Fraser, while getting a bonus look at 2012 first rounder Stuart Percy in the series against Rochester as Jesse Blacker overcomes a shoulder injury. Percy is on an amateur tryout contract from St. Michael's of the OHL and thus eligible to sub for Blacker after the Marlies had already declared their AHL playoff roster.

Percy and partner Jake Gardiner have the flash, but it was the heavy lifting from the 6-foot-3 duo of Holzer and Fraser that keyed Game 1's 4-3 win over the Americans on Thursday. Rochester's chances of an upset depend on its NHL-baptised forwards such as Marcus Fologno and Corey Tropp having a strong series, but going into the third period of Game 1, Foligno didn't have a shot on goal, Tropp had two and centre Paul Szczechura just one.

Fraser underlined his importance by jumping out of the penalty box and setting up Jerry D'Amigo's winning goal, a rare foray for the stay-at-home Fraser.

"He decided that puck was going on the net and didn't care if I have to take a shovel to get it there," coach Dallas Eakins said in praising Fraser. "This guy is a breath of fresh air. We haven't had a defenceman like him here since I arrived. He's big, he understands the game very well, his reads angle-wise are excellent, but he knows his limitations, He's one guy I wouldn't want to line up next to. He makes life miserable for the other team's top players."

Before Fraser's arrival at the trade deadline in a deal with Anaheim for little-used forward Dale Mitchell, Holzer was the defenceman most expected to make the jump to the Leafs next season. Fraser's arrival only made Holzer more dangerous. They make an unlikely-looking pair off the ice, a 24-year-old German and the ex-captain of the Kitchener Rangers, who'd already had a turn through the NHL with New Jersey. But they have a chemistry that has been lacking, certainly with most of the Leafs' groupings. Both could definitely be described as Randy Carlyle players.

"We have similar styles, we're willing to mix it up," Fraser said after Friday's practice. "I enjoy Holzer's physicality and his heads-up play with the puck. That simplifies my game and allows me to stay on their top players."

Fraser learned defensive hockey the methodical Jersey way, joining the Ducks after Carlyle had been fired. His second trade of the season brought him to the Leafs.

"I wasn't expecting that, but I'm obviously very happy that it did," Fraser said. "I'm sincerely grateful for the role I've been given here, the shutdown role and the chance to contribute every night."

Blacker, who was on track to make a run for a spot with the Leafs next year, will be out 10 days to two weeks.

"If Stu continues to play like this, Jesse will have to wait," Eakins said flatly. "It's not a seniority thing anymore. We're looking to win (in playoffs).

"I don't see Holzer or Fraser's game falling off any time soon. Juraj Mikus and Simon Gysbers have been together all year. I don't see (Leaf loan) Gardiner falling off. So Jesse's going to be in a battle. I'll do what's best for the team.

"Other than one mistake, Stuart played well (Thursday). He has a sense of calm. We'll see what happens. When I was coaching at the NHL level, you'd see a (prospect) play four or five really good games and then it falls off. It will be interesting with Stuart, whether he gets better and gets used to the pace."

Game 2 is Saturday at 3 p.m. (EDT) at the Ricoh Coliseum.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

SATURDAY'S GAME

Probable Marlie lineup for Game 2

LW C RW

Nazem Kadri Mike Zigomanis Ryan Hamilton

Matt Frattin Joe Colborne Carter Ashton

Nicolas Deschamps Pascal Dupuis Jerry D'Amigo

Jay Rosehill Will Acton Greg Scott

Defence

Korbinian Holzer Mark Fraser

Simon Gysbers Juraj Mikus

Stuart Percy Jake Gardiner

Goal

Ben Scrivens

Jussi Rynnas


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