The reigning Calder Cup Champions begin their defense of the title with a first-round series against their cross-border rivals, the Rochester Americans.
These two teams have met twice before at this stage of the postseason, although it was a little bit in the distant past as Toronto swept Rochester (3-0) back in 2012 and 2013.
The Toronto Marlies begin this playoff campaign as huge underdogs after losing the majority of last season’s championship team and enduring much adversity through the regular season, including a plethora of injuries and losing goaltending plus offensive talent to the Leafs and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Rochester Americans have prospered under head coach Chris Taylor, piling up 99 points with a 46-23-7 record, good for fourth best (points percentage) in the AHL with a +36 goal differential.
The bulk of Rochester’s success has been built on a potent offense that ended the year with 254 goals. Victor Olofsson (63), C.J. Smith (58) and Eddie Shore award-winning defenseman Zach Redmond (50) all put up 50+ points and scored a combined 79 goals between them.
Danny O’Regan tallied 20 goals and Taylor Leier, a late addition to the roster, registered 23 points (12-11-23) in 35 games for the Amerks.
Alexander Nylander is a player not to be overlooked despite injuries interrupting his season. He accumulated 12 goals and 19 assists through 49 games and had a brief stint in the NHL to end the regular season.
Lawrence Pilut was also reassigned from the Buffalo Sabres and adds to what is a very strong-looking blue line unit for Rochester. In his rookie year, Pilut has split the season between the NHL and AHL, recording 26 points (4-22-26) in 30 games for the Amerks.
The Buffalo organization has further bolstered Rochester’s back-end by penning Jacob Bryson (99th overall selection in 2017 NHL draft) to a three-year, entry-level contract and then bringing him in on an ATO contract with the farm club.
Regular Season Series
The Amerks dominated the regular season six-game series with the Marlies, earning five victories, although two came in overtime/shootout.
If that record wasn’t concerning enough for Sheldon Keefe, the fact that Rochester has put 25 past Toronto in six games will certainly be foremost in his thoughts. Danny O’Regan and C.J Smith both plundered Toronto for five goals apiece, Victor Olofsson recorded 10 points, and Zach Redmond registered five points in just four outings during the season series.
Rochester thoroughly outmatched Toronto in the special teams department, racking up six power play goals at a 25% strike rate against a Marlies penalty kill that improved through the season. Toronto’s much-vaunted power play has consistently been around the 20-22% mark all year, but Rochester allowed just four goals (15.4%) while shorthanded.
Keys to Victory
Toronto has to be better at five-on-five. It’s the truest cliché in hockey that the officials tend to swallow their whistles during the playoffs, but the Marlies owned a -15 goal differential during even strength play through 2018-19 and were outscored 20-13 against Rochester this year when special teams weren’t in effect.
Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco have carried the bulk of the load offensively this season, especially in the absence of Carl Grundstrom, Sam Gagner, Trevor Moore and most recently, Calle Rosen. No doubt, Rochester will focus on shutting the aforementioned pair down and therefore production from down the lineup will become a critical factor.
The likes of Dmytro Timashov, Michael Carcone, Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall will be relied on to step up, but there are a few others that have the ability to shift the balance of power in the series with some secondary scoring.
Nicholas Baptiste hasn’t performed badly since arriving in Toronto, but he has struggled to produce offense (seven points in 18 games). Gabriel Gagne owns a booming shot but has been a huge disappointment with some timid performances and was only recently recalled from a stint in Newfoundland. And then there’s the defensively-responsible Josh Jooris, who is a key cog on the penalty kill but has just 15 points (8-7-15) in 74 games.
Special teams, as always, play a key factor and the improving Toronto penalty kill needs to find a way to shut down a Rochester power play that turned their PK into mincemeat through the regular series.
The Marlies power play will again rely heavily on the first unit and the dynamite pairing of Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco. If they can find a chink in Rochester penalty kill and/or establish some chemistry with the second unit, that could well prove a deciding factor in the special teams contest.
Toronto’s defense has been in flux all season and the absence of Calle Rosen is undoubtedly a huge absence on the blue line. The Marlies top four have to be firing on all cylinders to counter Rochester’s offensive weapons, so there is going to a ton of pressure of what will likely be pairings of Andreas Borgman – Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin – Vincent LoVerde.
If the Marlies are able to complete breakouts cleanly and minimize turnovers through the defensive and neutral zones, that will go a long way toward nullifying Rochester’s team speed and excellent transition game. In turn, Toronto has too often been guilty of one and done plays in the offensive zone throughout the year. Consistently generating a cycle game will be a huge aspect of generating enough offense at even strength and enabling Sheldon Keefe to more easily roll out all four of his lines.
It sounds simplistic, but opening the scoring and holding a lead is going to be a key factor based on the evidence at hand. Both teams were exceptional during the regular season when ahead after the first and second periods — Rochester won 30 of 35 games they held a lead in after two periods of play.
Toronto owned a record of 21-2-2 and 29-1-2-1 when ahead after 20 and 40 minutes, respectively, but they rarely failed to get in the win column after falling behind (just three victories when trailing after 40 minutes).
The return of Mason Marchment could be the shot in the arm the Toronto Marlies needed. Alongside Adam Brooks and Trevor Moore, that line tormented opponents last year, and although it’s a different situation this time around, the experience should hold the left winger in good stead.
Marchment is a player who thrives in emotionally-charged games and had a knack for scoring at key times during the championship-winning campaign with six goals to his name.
He should be fresh, having only appeared 44 games due to injury, and if he’s up to speed now with some game reps under his belt, he can be a difference maker.
It’s been quite the season for Kasimir Kaskisuo. Thrust into the role as the Marlies #1 at the beginning of the year — not the initial expectation — Kaskisuo really struggled to find any consistency in his game and looked nothing like the goaltender that showed some promise in his first handful of AHL starts.
The addition of Michael Hutchinson seemed to bring a level of calmness to the team and Kaskisuo himself, but with the veteran now recalled to the Leafs, the responsibility now falls squarely on the shoulders of the Finnish netminder. He’s played well heading down the stretch and the Marlies absolutely require himself to be an X-factor in this series.
Facing him at the other end of the ice is the more experienced Scott Wedgewood, who owns a good win-loss record this year (28-14-2) but hasn’t put up outstanding numbers (.908 SV%). This is a duel that Kaskisuo is capable of winning if he puts his best foot forward.
Colin Greening isn’t necessarily a name that would immediately come to mind as a possible difference maker in a playoff series, but the Marlies’ unofficial captain is a highly experienced player who often makes Toronto tick.
His absence through injury led to Toronto struggling on the penalty kill in particular, but he’s also a strong physical force who is excellent at cycling the puck and generating offensive zone pressure. Allied with his veteran leadership, he’s someone Toronto needs to be on his A-game. The Newfoundland native put up nine points during last year’s championship win and is capable of producing that kind of secondary scoring in playoff hockey.
Something for the Marlies to hang their hat on is their impressive road form. Of their 39 victories through the regular season, 23 were accrued on the road. With a five-game series that begins in Rochester with a 2-2-1 format, there is an opportunity for Toronto to make hay on their travels in a building where they recorded their lone victory of the season series and enjoyed regular success before this year.
Prediction and Projected Lineup
The odds are stacked against Toronto, but this is a series they can win given the right set of circumstances.
After such an impressive regular season campaign, there is undoubtedly huge pressure on this Rochester team to go on a long run, with the Amerks not having progressed past the first round since 2005. Expectations can play havoc on a team and if Toronto can take Game 1 of the series, it could become a factor.
Rochester is a big favourite, and although my heart leans toward Toronto pulling off the upset, my head says otherwise. That said, I don’t anticipate a short series.
Round 1 Schedule – Toronto Marlies vs. Rochester Americans
|Date||Home Team||Puck Drop|
|Apr 19||Rochester||7:05 p.m. EST|
|Apr 21||Rochester||3:05 p.m. EST|
|Apr 24||Toronto||7:00 p.m. EST|
|Apr 26||Toronto||7:00 p.m. EST|
|Apr 28||Rochester||5:05 p.m. EST|