The final two games before the Christmas break will present a real challenge for the Toronto Marlies.
Beyond the fact the opposition are ranked first and fourth respectively in the Eastern Conference and that this back-to-back is on the road, the Marlies roster is looking a lot thinner than it was a few weeks ago.
Kasperi Kapanen is currently in Finland for the World Juniors, while Nikita Soshnikov and Frederik Gauthier are both injured and not expected to feature this weekend.
Brett Findlay has been recalled to bolster the ranks, joining recent recalls Jack Rodewald and Ryan Rupert.
It’s between the pipes where the Marlies are looking most scant, however.
With Garret Sparks out long term and the status of Reimer still undetermined, the Leafs will call up Antoine Bibeau to back up Jonathan Bernier, leaving the Marlies with Rob Madore as the only goaltender on the books. The Orlando Solar Bears play the same days as the Toronto Marlies this weekend, also on the road, so whether Ryan Massa is called for is up for debate. Either way, it’s not a helpful situation heading into a difficult looking pair of games on paper.
Toronto Marlies at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — December 18, 7:00 p.m. EST
Friday night will see Toronto go head to head with the AHL’s front runners, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Pens have been as dominant on home ice (12-2-0-0) as the Marlies have been on the road (13-1-1-0), and they‘ll once again fight for the right to lead the AHL standings.
WBS were unbeaten at the Mohegan Sun Arena until early December, when they dropped consecutive games to Lehigh Valley and Hartford, 3-1 on each occasion.
A following loss to Hershey meant three straight defeats and losing the AHL lead to the Marlies, but they have they bounced back with a vengeance since then to retake the overall lead in the standings.
The Penguins blasted six past Syracuse before shutting out Lehigh Valley, Albany Devils and Lehigh once again in 4-0, 4-0 and 3-0 victories — setting a franchise record for consecutive shutouts.
The Pens have lost the services of outstanding young goaltender Matt Murray (called up to Pittsburgh), who swept the awards as a rookie last season, but they look to have another gem in 20-year-old Tristan Jarry.
The 44th overall pick from 2013 has a 8-1 record this season and recorded two of those three aforementioned shutouts.
On the flipside of that coin, he only needed to make a total of 39 saves for those goose eggs, and only twice has he been called upon to make more than 25 stops to record a win this season. One hopes the Marlies will be able to test him a little more than that.
A tight WBS defense that has allowed just 49 goals against is backed up by a potent offense, which with 92 goals is behind only the Marlies in the Eastern Conference.
The Pens may have lost talisman Conor Sheary to Pittsburgh for the time being, but like the Marlies they have a rookie leading the way in scoring. Centreman Dominik Simon is at point per game pace through 25 games, but again, like their rivals from Toronto, WBS have scoring depth, with eleven active players on the roster having reached double figures in points. Left winger Scott Wilson has 14 goals, tied for second in the league, with five of those markers coming on the power play.
Speaking of special teams, the Pens have two very reliable units so far this season.
The powerplay is firing at a fraction under 20% and is slightly better at home, while the penalty kill is ranked sixth at 86.9%.
WBS have an impressive record of 8-1 against North Division foes.
In yet another similarity with the Marlies, they also have an outstanding record with the lead after forty minutes, yet to lose in the sixteen times they’ve held an advantage after two periods.
Toronto Marlies at Hershey Bears — December 19, 7:00 p.m. EST
The Hershey Bears will provide the opposition on Saturday — a welcome re-addition to the schedule brought about by the league realignment in the summer.
The historic franchise currently sit second in the Atlantic Division behind the WBS Pens.
The majority of their success this season has come because of their home record (9-1-0-3), although they have been in decent form of late, dropping just one of their last twelve games in regulation.
That loss almost inevitably came against the aforementioned Pens, but this is a hard team to beat of late with a 8-1-1-2 record.
They are lead offensively by one of the current American Hockey League legends in Chris Bourque.
A veteran of nine seasons, he’s put up a fraction shy of point per game pace through 536 regular-season appearances, and another 95 points in exactly 100 playoff games.
He’s currently riding a six-game point streak and leads the Bears with 24 points this season.
Fellow LW Paul Carey is tied with Bourque with nine goals, but Hershey will miss defenseman Connor Carrick, called up just yesterday. With eight goals for 15 points this season from the blue line, he’s not likely to be back soon with Aaron Ness re-assigned to Hershey.
Two of the top six active points scorers are rookies in Riley Barber and Travis Boyd, while another name to look out for is Nathan Walker. The best hockey import to come from Australia is having his best year production wise in the AHL and is still just 21 years old.
Between the pipes, Hershey have a pair of seasoned AHL goaltenders in Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, who were previously teammates in Charlotte.
The latter has the better record and edge in overall numbers this season, but with the Bears having to play Friday night in Lehigh, I’d expect the two of them to split the starts.
Hershey currently have a minus-one goal differential — an unusual occurrence for a team in their position.
There are a few factors in play here, as they generally don’t beat teams out of sight while also suffering a couple of heavy reverses this season.
Also, the Hershey power play has been sorely lacking so far, registering at just 13%.
The Bears penalty kill is ranked seventh overall but has the best record on home ice, allowing just three goals against on 54 opportunities. The special team battle could be the telling factor if the Marlies are able to get their powerplay firing.
Over a third of Hershey’s games have been tied after regulation play, with the Bears not owning the best of records in extra hockey. They’re 2-1 when the game ends in overtime, but have lost five of the six in shootout. Conversely, the Marlies have won both of their shootouts this season and are 5-2 in overtime.