The Toronto Marlies have already exceeded expectations by progressing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Not only is reaching this stage of the Calder Cup playoffs somewhat of a surprise, doubly so is the manner in which they’ve done it, sweeping both the Rochester Americans and the Cleveland Monster in three and four games, respectively, and outscoring them 27-11 in the process.
Undoubtedly, Sheldon Keefe and his coaching staff deserve a great deal of credit for putting the team in a position to succeed and the special teams success has been indicative of that, with the power play ranked number one at 39.1% and penalty kill sixth at 86.4% through seven games.
However, the biggest x-factor in this run to the Eastern Conference Finals is that many players have either stepped up significantly from their regular season form or continued to thrive while finding a new level once the playoffs began on April 19.
Without outstanding performances from their Finnish goaltender, the Marlies would not have made it through the first round of the playoffs, let alone find sit four wins away from a return to the Calder Cup Final.
Against Rochester, Kaskisuo faced a barrage of shots, including some high-quality chances in Games 1 and 2. He turned aside a combined 33 shots in the first periods of both games, allowing Toronto to escape unscathed and settle into the game before finding the net themselves in the middle frame.
The Marlies allowed just four goals against in the Rochester series and Kaskisuo was only beaten seven more times in the second round by Cleveland, posting a 35-save shutout in the pivotal Game 3 of the series on the road that ultimately broke the resolve of the Monsters.
Among goaltenders to have featured in more than a single playoff game, Kaskisuo leads the league with a .949 save percentage and seven victories, all while facing the third-most amount of rubber (215 shots). Even with Michael Hutchinson back in the fold — who was the Marlies‘ #1 until his NHL promotion — Kaskisuo has proven to be Toronto’s star performer thus far, which is not something you could have ever foreseen before the turn of the year 2019.
The second-year professional made his mark in the Rochester series with a shorthanded goal in Game 1 to seal the victory and followed that up with a hat-trick in Game 3 to clinch the sweep. He leads the team with four even-strength tallies and is tied for the team lead in overall goals with Chris Mueller (five).
This hasn’t been as easy of an assignment it was last time around in 2018, either, with the Marchment-Brooks-Moore line facing and utterly dominating other teams’ third or fourth units. With Toronto lacking offensive depth at the center position, Brooks’ output from the middle of the ice has been vital to date and will continue to be so with the ‘kid line’ from last year’s championship team now reunited headed into the Conference Final vs. Charlotte.
Paired with Andreas Borgman, the most experienced defensive duo on the Marlies‘ blue line has been tasked with providing reliable leadership with such a young and inexperienced core around them.
It’s so far, so good in that respect, and adding to LoVerde’s effectiveness has been his offensive production after putting up just 11 points (3-8-11) through the regular season. The Chicago native leads the Marlies with even-strength point production with six assists and the majority have been accrued at critical moments in games. Three primary helpers include an assist on Jeremy Bracco’s game-tying goal in Game 2 and Adam Brooks’ winner in Game 3 of the Rochester series.
The veteran defenseman followed that up by playing a huge part in the Game 4 series win against Cleveland, helping to tee up Toronto’s early response in the second period (when Marlies trailed 0-2) and the eventual game-winner by Trevor Moore before rounding off a three-point haul with a secondary helper on the third period insurance marker by Michael Carcone.
The leading scorer for the Toronto Marlies through the regular season has carried on in similar vein during the post-season — he currently leads the team in scoring (2-9-11) and in power-play points with seven assists.
Bracco has gone from a bit-part playoff performer last Spring to a player heavily relied on to produce within a calendar year. Sheldon Keefe told Bracco during the on-ice celebrations last June that this was now his team and those words have fully come to fruition.
His two even-strength goals both came in the come-from-behind victory in Game 2 of the Rochester series, where he tied proceedings at two apiece before netting the overtime winner with a piece of individual brilliance during what was a three-point night for the right winger.
During the Marlies championship win of 2018, Chris Mueller scored just four times. The veteran forward has already surpassed that with total with five tallies in seven games, including a league-best four power-play markers. He was a major difference maker in the Rochester series, contributing a combined three goals and a pair of assists in Games 1 and 2.
The 33-year-old in on pace to surpass his 16-point haul from last Spring, having already accrued nine (5-4-9) at this juncture, and he remains a player Sheldon Keefe relies on in so many different situations.
Trevor Moore has shrugged off the disappointment of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first-round exit by channeling all his energy into a bid to win back-to-back Calder Cups.
Inserted into the lineup for Game 1 of the series with Cleveland, Moore made an immediate impact with a pair of goals, but it’s more than just offense — the winger brings intensity, diligent defensive work, a great deal of pace, and a willingness to do anything it takes to win, as highlighted by his shot block on his first shift back in the AHL.
In just four games, the 24-year-old has already compiled four goals and two assists. Now reunited with Mason Marchment and Adam Brooks, Moore will be looking to add to those totals in the next series and hopefully beyond.
“Timothy Liljegren was outstanding this entire series. Goes with Calle Rosen in the top pair today [game 3 v Rochester] and there’s no easy match-up, there are no easy shifts against this hockey team. He’s playing a lot on the penalty kill, you know he helped us in the power play, just played a lot of minutes so he was excellent.”
– Sheldon Keefe’s assessment after his Marlies completed the sweep of Rochester
He’s not racked up points in the way Rasmus Sandin or Vincent LoVerde have during the post-season, but with Calle Rosen absent through a callup and now injury, Liljegren has easily been the Marlies top defenseman during their perfect playoff campaign to date, carrying the heaviest load assignment-wise. The 20-year-old has chipped in offensively of late as well with three assists during the Cleveland series, including a pair in Game 4.
The teenager hasn’t been immune to mistakes during this playoff run, but thanks to some excellent goaltending behind him to ensure those didn‘t end up in Toronto’s net, Sandin has continued to flourish, showing the patience, confidence, and composure with the puck that saw him excel during the regular season.
With Rosen now out through injury, Sandin has been promoted back alongside Timothy Liljegren, but he hasn’t broken stride with the added responsibility and pressure that comes from playing top-four minutes in the rough and tumble of the playoffs. He’s the Marlies leading offensive producer from the blue line with seven points (all assists), four of which are primary helpers. He’s contributed to three power-play goals and continues to be the lone defenseman on the team’s number one PP unit.
Stay tuned for a full preview of the Charlotte vs. Toronto Conference Final series later this week.