The most anticipated Calder Cup campaign in Toronto Marlies history begins Saturday night in Bridgeport.
As has been mentioned often, this will be the first occasion in franchise history that Toronto will face off against the New York Islanders affiliate. With that in mind, what do we know about the Bridgeport Sound Tigers?
Know Your Enemy: The Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Founded in 2001, Bridgeport made the Calder Cup final in their inaugural season, falling 4-1 to Chicago. Playoff success since then has been limited to one second round exit. This is Bridgeport’s first post-season campaign after three consecutive years of failing to make the cut.
Playing out of the Webster Bank Arena in Connecticut, the Sound Tigers are coached by Brent Thompson, who is in his third season as head coach and his fifth year in the New York Islanders organization. Thompson has tasted playoff success in the ECHL, winning the Kelly Cup as head coach of the Alaska Aces in 2011.
The Sound Tigers scrambled into playoffs, taking fifth place as the crossover team. Winning just twice in their last seven games, Bridgeport only finished two points ahead of bitter rivals Hartford in the battle for the final playoff berth.
To Bridgeport’s credit, they have overachieved a little this season, flipping a 28-40-0-8 record in 2014-15 on its head this year. Their home form was the crucial element in that accomplishment, as the Sound Tigers amassed the fifth best points percentage among all Eastern Conference teams with a .605.
Their road record was not too shabby, but they had trouble keeping the puck out of the net on their travels, allowing 3.41 goals against when away on average. It’s no surprise, then, that they were the only team to make the playoffs with a minus goal differential (11).
Penalties and special teams are a big reason why the Sound Tigers have given up more than they’ve scored this year. Despite being shorthanded a staggering 357 times this season — a league high — their penalty kill is ranked ninth by percentage. However, the 54 goals against dwarfs the 37 goals they’ve produced with the extra man, which gives them the league’s worst powerplay. Compounding their problems with the man advantage, the Islanders affiliate has conceded eleven shorthanded goals.
There’s little doubt that Bridgeport is a physical team that hasn’t been shy of dropping the gloves. A total of 43 fights this season ranks only 17th in the league, but it’s the sixth highest number in the Eastern Conference. Bridgeport led the league during the regular season with 18.6 penalty minutes a game, with Ben Holmstrom and Mike Halmo leading the way (138 and 117 penalty minutes, respectively). Those two gentlemen and the Tigers’ lesser lights will be required to step up offensively as Bridgeport have been shorn of their best offensive players. Centre Alan Quine (48 points in 56 games) and defenseman Ryan Pulock (24 points in 51 games) are both up with the New York Islanders.
Also with the parent club are goaltenders Jean-Francois Berube and former Marlie, Christopher Gibson. Berube backstopped Manchester Monarchs to last year’s championship, while Gibson has had a solid first season with the Sound Tigers organization with a 19-11-6 record, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts. Gibson may join Bridgeport over the weekend if Thomas Greiss and Berube remain healthy. If not, the Sound Tigers will have to choose between rookie Stephon Williams (15-3-1) or Parker Milner, who has been brought up from the ECHL.
Toronto will be lining up against a few other former Marlies in Carter Verhaeghe and Matt Finn, both of whom have spent time in the ECHL this season. Missing out will be Justin Vaive, son of Rick, who has undergone season-ending surgery.
A late addition to the Bridgeport roster will be a familiar name to Oshawa General and Kingston Frontenac fans. New York’s 2014 first round selection, Michael Dal Colle, was signed to an ATO after Kingston’s elimination from the OHL playoffs, suiting up in the AHL for three straight games last weekend.
How does the series weigh up?
The game plan from the eighth-seeded Sound Tigers will be pretty simple: Work harder than Toronto, nullify their speed through the neutral zone, and try to intimidate their (largely young) skilled players with physicality.
The latter is a tactic that’s been attempted by other teams, generally with limited success. It’ll be down to the Marlies to match Bridgeport‘s work rate, sustain possession of the puck, limit giveaways and errors in their own zone, and remain disciplined under provocation.
If they’re able to adhere to that strategy, Toronto will have enough in every department to dispatch their opponents with relative ease. The Marlies possess far too much firepower for Bridgeport to handle. For perspective, beyond the obvious protagonists, Andrew Campbell, Stuart Percy and Rinat Valiev are not thought of as particularly dominant offensive blueliners, but each produced over 20 points from the blue line during the regular season and combined for 17 goals.
Goaltending is the one area up for debate, although I have the distinct feeling Antoine Bibeau is in the box seat for now and will be given the start in game one. Do not be surprised if the duties are split over the weekend, with Sheldon Keefe happy to play both Bibeau and Garret Sparks and allow them to push each for the starting job.
Getting the special teams on track early will be a key for the Toronto Marlies in this and future series. T.J Brennan, Mark Arcobello, Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo and William Nylander are the leading powerplay producers this season, and you wonder if Sheldon Keefe may try putting all his eggs in one basket with his top unit. Colin Smith has recorded seven points on the man advantage in 23 games and could also feature at 5v4.
Zach Hyman, Frederik Gauthier, Rich Clune, Nikita Soshnikov and Sam Carrick will be the main penalty killers up front. Hyman leads the team with four shorthanded goals this season and could be a factor there in this series with Bridgeport’s struggling powerplay.
Toronto’s first round loss last season came after sweeping the opening series the previous three years. The Marlies have not lost a home game in the first round of the post season since April 17, 2009.
Toronto travelled to Bridgeport on Thursday and hit the ice for a final preparations on Friday. Not prone to hyperbole, Sheldon Keefe said the practice was the team’s best of the week and there are no reported injury concerns ahead of game one.
|Points %||0.75 (1st)||0.572 (15th)|
|GF||294 (1st)||209 (18th)|
|GA||191 (4th)||220 (16th)|
|Goal Differential||+103 (1st)||-11 (19th)|
|Shots/Game||32.5 (4th)||28.9 (24th)|
|Shots Against/Game||29.7 (11th)||29.6 (10th)|
|Shooting Percentage||11.2 (2nd)||8.9 (17th)|
|Save Percentage||.918 (3rd)||.908 (18th)|
|Powerplay||17.4% (10th)||12.1% (30th)|
|Penalty Kill||84% (12th)||84.9% (9th)|
|Penalty Differential||+40 (2nd)||-51 (29th)|
|PIMs/G||12.3 (27th)||18.6 (1st)|
Toronto Marlies Playoff Schedule
|1||Saturday, April 23||Bridgeport||7 p.m. EST||Leafs TV/TSN1050|
|2||Sunday, April 24||Bridgeport||5 p.m. EST||Leafs TV/TSN1050|
|3||Thursday, April 28||Toronto||7:30 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN1050|
|4*||Friday, April 29||Toronto||7:30 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN1050|
|5*||Sunday, May 1||Toronto||3:00 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN1050|