Regular season standings counted for nothing in the American Hockey League’s North Division, with both top seeds cleaning out their lockers after the first round.
If Toronto’s sweep of the Rochester Americans was a stunning result, that’s nothing compared to what the Marlies‘ second-round opponents achieved: The Cleveland Monsters eliminated the Syracuse Crunch, who had put up over 100 points during the regular season and led the league with 264 goals, in four games.
This came after the Monsters scrambled their way into the playoffs courtesy of a final day victory against Toronto to give them 84 points (37-29-10) — two more than Belleville Senators, who chased them all the way to the finish line. Cleveland was a middle of the pack team in goals for and against and relied heavily on balanced scoring, with just two players accumulating 50+ points (injuries and recalls played their part).
Zac Dalpe accounted for over 14% of Cleveland’s goals during the regular season with 33 tallies in 55 games. Centerman Mark Letestu was second on the teams in goals with 21 and added 29 assists in 64 outings. Adam Clendening was a difference maker offensively from the blue line, especially on the power play, with one goal and 14 assists on the man advantage as he tied Dalpe and Letestu in team power play production despite featuring in only 45 games.
Nathan Gerbe (10), Sonny Milano (11), Kevin Stenlund and rookie Kole Sherwood (16) all reached double figures in goals, but the next highest points producer on the roster after Clendening was defenseman Tommy Cross with 34 points in 73 games.
The Monsters’ goaltending situation was certainly a weakness as Jean-Francois Berube struggled in his 43 outings despite posting a winning record. He posted a .896 save percentage and over three goals against per game, while depth goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks fared worse in 14 appearances (.873). The reintroduction of Brad Thiessen for the stretch run was a key in helping Cleveland attain a playoff berth — he posted a 8-5-3 record and .924 save percentage through March and April.
Regular Season Series
Cleveland edged the regular season series by earning 12 points to Toronto’s nine. In truth, there was very little between the two teams after Cleveland ruined Toronto’s home opener and banner-raising celebration by winning 5-3 back in October.
The five games that followed all required overtime or the shootout, the penultimate encounter was decided by a single goal, and the final meeting was essentially a washout, with Toronto resting many of their top players to give them a breather before the playoffs.
With an average of eight goals per game, there wasn’t a shortage of action when the two teams met, but I’d expect that to change with both teams far more settled in defensively in the second half of the season, in addition to the enhanced attention to detail that playoff hockey usually entails.
Zac Dalpe ravaged Toronto in the regular season, racking up eight goals and 12 points through seven games and was ably assisted by Paul Bittner (2-6-8), Mark Latest (5-2-7), and Nathan Gerbe (0-6-6). Eric Robinson helped himself to nine points in just six outings against the Marlies, but he was recalled to Columbus in February and has been with the Blue Jackets ever since.
It’s worth noting that despite the high scoring encounters during the regular season, it was the respective penalty kills that dominated the special teams battle — Toronto killed at 89.7% and Cleveland at 84.8%, with just eight total power-play goals tallied during the season series.
Keys to the Series
Despite making the post-season with the lowest points percentage of any team in the American Hockey League, Cleveland played the perfect first-round series to defeat Syracuse in four games, allowing only six goals. The Monsters trailed just once in the series (they lost that game) and limited the Crunch to just 89 total shots.
Cleveland played with an excellent, highly-disciplined structure and carried much of the play against a more talented opponent that was playing catch-up for the majority of the series. How Toronto deals with that structure and attempts to generate offense against a stingy and confident opponent will go a long way to deciding their fate.
Special teams – In Cleveland’s dominance in their first-round series victory, the penalty kill was one area of weakness. Syracuse struck four times on 14 power play opportunities and this is an area Toronto can certainly exploit, especially with Calle Rosen and Trevor Moore added back into the mix on the Marlies‘ special teams.
Scoring threats – Sonny Milano has a point to prove in the Columbus organization and he was the team’s leading producer in the first round with six points (1-5-6). Toronto struggled to contain Zac Dalpe and veteran forward Mark Letestu during the regular season series, and Cleveland’s balanced scoring threat — which saw 10 different players score in the opening round — now includes rookie Liam Foudy, who netted twice in the decisive Game 4 victory in round one. Toronto’s mostly young but very mobile defense will have to be vigilant at all times but also move the puck cleanly out of their own end against a team that looks to establish their forecheck and clog up the neutral zone without the puck.
Goaltending battle – Both Kasimir Kaskisuo and Brad Thiessen are in excellent form right now, with the latter having posted a shutout in his last outing. Toronto needs to do a better job overall of ensuring Kaskisuo sees less rubber (which they did to a degree in Game 3 vs. Rochester) while also making sure they test the more experienced Thiessen, who faced on average only 25 shots per game against Syracuse.
Trevor Moore’s return to the Marlies line-up is a huge boost offensively. The diminutive winger is now a full-fledged NHL player and will be looking to add to the 17 points (6-11-17) he contributed during last year’s championship-winning run. There’s the possibility of reuniting the ‘rookie” line alongside Mason Marchment and Adam Brooks, but also of him slotting in on the top line with Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco.
Calle Rosen returned for Game 3 of the Rochester season and unsurprisingly made an instant impact while slotting in alongside Timothy Liljegren. The Swedish defenseman was leading the AHL in scoring until late in the season and will provide an offensive dynamic from the blue line Toronto simply doesn’t have in his absence. His accurate and hard shot from the point creates second opportunities, and I would not be surprised if is reintroduced onto the top power-play unit for this series.
Even if Michael Hutchinson fails to see any ice time, his addition to the roster has huge benefits for the team and Kaskisuo. He almost backstopped the St. John’s IceCaps to a championship in 2014 and his experience and calming veteran influence will be a welcome addition to the locker room. If Kaskisuo does miss a step, Toronto has the perfect man to step in as his replacement, something Cleveland is lacking in their goaltending department.
Adam Brooks was Toronto’s leading goal scorer during the opening round as he scored four including a hat-trick against Rochester. The second-year forward was the Marlies‘ leading scorer against the Monster during the regular season series with four goals and as many assists in six games.
We may also see new signing Yegor Korshkov — signed to two-year ELC and then a PTO for the AHL playoffs — factor into the series at some point. While he’s somewhat of an unknown to most Leafs observers on the North American side of the pond, he has extensive professional hockey experience as a 22-year-old with five KHL seasons to his name. While his name has often surfaced in the context of who the Leafs didn’t pick at #31 overall in 2016 — namely Alex DeBrincat — he offers an intriguing skill and size package on the wing in a similar vein as Pierre Engvall; he can play both wings but is a left-handed shot, which is an area of the depth chart the Leafs are looking to add some organizational depth.
This series has the makings of a very low scoring affair in which special teams and opportunistic scoring at 5v5 could make the difference. Both teams have proven themselves tough to overcome when in possession of the lead through the regular season as well as the first round of the playoffs, so scoring first could be a crucial element if the prediction of a low scoring series rings true.
Predictions almost seem inane after the first round surprises, but I don’t see either team sweeping the other and my expectation is that we’ll see a six-game series with Toronto holding the edge in a few areas — namely goaltending, special teams, and the addition of more NHL-calibre firepower in Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen, something Cleveland doesn’t have the luxury of with Columbus still going strong in their post-season campaign. In the same way Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott made a significant positive effect last year once reassigned, I would expect something similar this time around.
Baptiste – Greening-Jooris
Round 2 Schedule – Toronto Marlies vs. Cleveland Monsters
|Date||Home Team||Puck Drop|
|May 1||Toronto||7:00 p.m. EST|
|May 3||Toronto||7:00 p.m. EST|
|May 5||Cleveland||3:00 p.m. EST|
|May 7||Cleveland||7:00 p.m. EST|
|May 11*||Toronto||4:00 p.m. EST|
|May 13*||Cleveland||7:00 p.m. EST|
|May 15*||Toronto||7:00 p.m. EST|