The Toronto Marlies will pass the quarter pole of the 2016-17 season this weekend.

With three games in as many days, anything less than four points will be seen as a disappointment as Toronto looks to keep up with the divisional pace setters.

It may seem like hyperbole to even be talking about a playoff race at this stage of the season, but the Marlies have hit a roadblock in recent weeks. Winners of just two of their last seven games, Toronto has been outscored 22-15 during that time and has slipped to third in the North Division.

With a hectic schedule for all teams heading into Christmas, it’s time to iron out the flaws and find the consistency that has been lacking through 18 games.

This isn’t the most demanding three-in-three Toronto will face this season, either logistically or in terms of strength of opposition. A trip to Rochester to take on an Amerks team that is currently three games under .500 will be followed by a back-to-back against a struggling Hartford team that is looking to hoist itself from the bottom of the Atlantic Division.

Toronto Marlies at Rochester Americans – Friday, December 2, 7:05 p.m. EST

The Rochester Americans have already tasted home success against the Marlies this season — a 5-2 victory in which the Amerks capitalised on their chances despite Toronto largely controlling play at even strength.

Buffalo’s affiliate defeated Utica on Wednesday night, breaking a streak of six consecutive defeats that included a shootout loss after forfeiting 2-0 and 3-1 leads.

Rochester’s home form has not been strong (3-5-0-1) this season and their three victories have been achieved while scoring just five times. Keeping the puck out of their net has also been a problem, with a goals against average approaching four at the Blue Cross Arena.

Cal O’Reilly and Cole Schneider, third and fourth in the league respectively, currently lead the Amerks in scoring. O’Reilly — in good form with six points in his last five outings — leads the way with 20 points followed by Schneider’s 19, while Nick Baptiste paces the team in goal scoring with nine over 12 games. Other forwards chipping in include Justin Bailey and rookie Alexander Nylander, who both have 13 points to their name.  Left winger William Carrier would have undoubtedly been a threat to the Marlies, but he’s been recalled once more to Buffalo.

Taylor Fedun, the team’s leading points producer from the blue line, already has a four-point game this season as well as another multi-point game that came against Toronto (1g, 1a) in the teams’ first meeting on October 21.

Linus Ullmark has carried the load between the pipes for Rochester, starting 75% of their games so far. Considering the team’s issues on defense, his .913 save percentage is very respectable and he put on an excellent 34-save showing against Toronto in October. Called up on Thursday to back up for Buffalo, it’s unknown as of this writing whether Ullmark will return for Friday night’s game. If the Swedish netminder is unavailable, the Amerks will either turn to veteran John Muse, a recent recall from the ECHL, or rookie Jason Kasdorf.

The Amerks’ impressive special teams statistics — besides providing a good indication of the team’s lacking even strength play, given their overall record — should be a point of emphasis for the Marlies coaching staff heading into the matchup. The Amerks own the fourth best powerplay and third most effective penalty kill at 23.2 and 85.1% respectively. The first encounter of the season series serves as a warning, with Rochester striking three times with the extra man while killing all four Toronto powerplays.

Toronto’s previous 3-in-3 weekend saw them lose on the road in Rochester before retuning home to defeat Manitoba twice. With so much emphasis placed on divisional matchups throughout the regular season, Toronto can ill-afford to drop two points to a rival looking to make up ground.

Hartford Wolf Pack at Toronto Marlies – Saturday, December 3, 5:00 pm EST & Sunday, December 2, 3:00 pm EST

Without a game on Friday night, the Hartford Wolf Pack will be fresh and waiting in Toronto for Saturday’s meeting. It’s been a tough go so far this season for the New York Rangers affiliate, however; only the Binghamton Senators have a worse record in the Eastern Conference than Hartford, who have won just six of 19 games this season. The Wolf Pack own a 2-4-1 record on their travels and have allowed 31 goals over those seven games.

Toronto would do well not to underestimate a team that pulled off somewhat of an upset in their last outing on the road. A 3-1 win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms — a team that has dismantled Toronto twice already this season — will ensure Hartford has a little more confidence heading into the pair of weekend games.

Only four players have hit double figures in terms of points production for the Wolf Pack.
Centreman Marek Hrivik, in his fourth season with the team, leads the way with 15 points. Next best is left winger Nicklas Jensen followed by two defensemen who have caught the eye recently.

Ryan Graves has 12 points, seven of which have been accrued during his last four games. Matt Bodie has a point less than Graves but is riding a five-game point streak that includes three goals and as many assists.

Magnus Hellberg is Hartford’s clear number one goaltender and has somehow managed to muster a winning record (5-4-3) despite his team’s struggles. His 0.892 save percentage is not pretty, but it is a considerable upgrade on those below him in the pecking order. Rookie Brandon Halverson and Mackenzie Slapski have a combined .830 and just one win between them this season.

In injury news, Travis Dermott and Frederik Gauthier are doubtful to make more than a single appearance this weekend if they do return to game action. Both Daniel Maggio and Mason Marchment could find themselves in the lineup as both impressed in short spells with Orlando. There is no change in the goaltending situation as of Friday morning; it is expected Antoine Bibeau will take two of the starts while Jeff Glass takes the other game in his second start of the season.