Thursday night, in front of a sellout crowd of 7,822 at the Ricoh Coliseum, the Toronto Marlies sealed the deal in the first round of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs, winning Game 3 by a score of 6-4 and sweeping the Bridgeport Sound Tigers three games to none. An outstanding showing by the Calder Cup favourites buys the Toronto team a spot in the second round of the AHL playoffs, where the series increase to a best-of-seven (as a post to the first round which is a best-of-five).
Games 1 and 2 were won handily by the Marlies, by the scores of 4-1 and 3-0, but Game 3 was a harder-fought battle by Bridgeport. In the end, the Marlies reigned supreme, winning by a score of 6-4. Bridgeport came quick out the gate, taking a 4-1 lead by the middle of the second period. A goalie switch-up soon came, and 5 consecutive goals put the Marlies on top.
Third-period dominance seemed to be a theme through each game of the series. The Marlies have managed to keep the pressure on in the third, despite leading by several goals in games one and two, in all three games past 40 minutes of play. The team’s apparent depth has certainly helped keep their players strong, and this will come at an even bigger advantage moving into round two. But before we move on, let us reflect on games one through three of round one.
With no set starter heading into the playoffs, it was anyone’s best guess who coach Sheldon Keefe would put his faith into in round one. He ended up alternating through the three-game series: Antoine Bibeau saw a game one start, making 31 saves on 32 shots. Garret Sparks took to the net in Game 2, posting his first career AHL playoff shutout. Bibeau returned to goal in game three, but was pulled midway through the second after giving up four goals on 12 shots. Sparks came up big, stopping 12 out of 12 shots, and helped lead the Marlies to victory.
Though inexperience amongst goaltenders seemed to be the one weakness contained within this Marlies team, both goalies have come up big and proven that experience does not always equal an advantage. Despite Bibeau’s showing in game three, the Marlies goalie tandem was solid in games one and two.
With Sparks posting a 100 percent save percentage through two games, it would be hard to imagine coach Keefe goes with his original starter in Bibeau heading into round two.
STARS COME UP BIG
Connor Carrick, one of two Carricks front lining this Marlies team, certainly proved his worth across three games in the first round. Carrick tallied seven points in the series, and came up huge for Toronto in game three, scoring three goals and two assists to complete the hat trick and put the Marlies on top. Carrick’s skill only adds to the Marlies offensive-minded defense core, as the AHL’s best scoring defenseman, TJ Brennan, had 14 shots across three games. Five out of six goals in game three were scored by defenseman: Carrick, Brennan and Victor Loov, who drew back into the lineup Thursday, replacing rookie Rinat Valiev.
Connor Brown put on quite the show in the first two games of the series, scoring some very pretty goals and tallying 3 goals in 3 games. Take a look at Brown’s short-handed goal from game two:
— Z-Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) April 24, 2016
Brown successfully pressures the Bridgeport defenseman and is able to break into an empty offensive zone. A perfectly placed shot seals the deal.
ROUND 2 DEMONS
The Marlies will take on the Albany Devils in the North Division Finals after Albany punched their ticket to the second round on Thursday, winning their series three games to one against the Utica Comets. The Devils finished second in the AHL’s regular season standings with 102 points (46 wins, 20 losses, 8 overtime losses), only 12 points behind the Marlies. Toronto won 4 out of 6 regular season games against the New Jersey Devils affiliate this season.
The Devils are a solid team and have looked strong in the playoffs, particularly excelling in special teams play. The Devils have a 100 percent penalty kill percentage (first amongst playoff teams) and a 25 percent penalty kill (third amongst playoff teams). Albany has lacked discipline at times, taking 15 minor penalties through four games. The Marlies playoff power play percentage currently sits at 27.3 percent (second amongst playoff teams).
Coach Keefe told the media on Thursday: “The team we’re playing next, they feel they deserve to win a championship just as much as us, they got help from their NHL team just like us, they’re a very motivated group, they’re right up at the top of the league, right with us, and we’re probably meeting them a round or two early in terms of the calibre of their club.”
Keefe is certainly right, as the second round is sure to be a bloodbath between the AHL’s top teams. Though the Marlies are certainly the favourites heading into the series, games will depend on a show of talent. Stars will need to shine. Depth will need to be apparent. There will be little room for error.