A late-season slump (2-1-4) ensured the Toronto Marlies would not only face the lottery of the best-of-three first-round series but also forgo home-ice advantage.

Let’s be real. The extended playoff format and a best-of-three series is a lottery, and winning the first game is almost everything. Of the 14 series played since the American Hockey League opted to introduce this format, 13 teams who won the first game progressed to the second round. One bad call or odd bounce could bump you out of the post-season before you know it.


These teams met 10 times during the regular season but only twice in the last two months. The season series was split equally, with seven games decided by a single goal. There was no difference between home and road records, which isn’t surprising as Toronto fans swarm to road games in Belleville.

There was one blowout victory for Toronto this season (8-0), but Belleville generally saves its best for their closest rival. No matter how either team is faring, the Senators always have a jump in their step when facing Toronto. You can bet your bottom dollar they will be fired up for the first-ever playoff encounter between the two teams.

Key Performers

Belleville will be counting on a select few players to produce their offense. Egor Sokolov loves nothing more than producing against Toronto as he showed by racking up 12 points (3G/9A) in the season series.

The Senators were the lowest-scoring team in the North Division (209 goals) but have received help from the parent club for this playoff run. Wyatt Bongiovanni, Roby Järventie, Jiri Smejkal, and Angus Crookshank are forwards to be wary of; the latter pair was reassigned from Ottawa. Those four suited up in a combined 15 games against the Marlies, scoring 10 goals. 

The two threats from the Senators’ blue line are Jacob Larsson and Tyler Kleven. Both love to fire pucks from the point, with Belleville’s modus operandi to get the puck toward the net at every opportunity.

Belleville is blessed with goaltending options in the shape of Mads Sogaard, Leevi Merilainen, and Kevin Mandolese. All three are big dudes, with Sogaard, in particular, filling the net with his 6’7” frame. I would expect the latter to be the starter after a good season for him—an 18-9-3 winning record over 32 games with a .916 save percentage (11th-best in AHL). 

The question for Toronto is whether their leading scorers can put it together at the same time. Alex Steeves referred to this in a recent post-game presser: “We’ve got a lot of guys on our team who are having fantastic individual seasons. If we can all be doing it at the same down the stretch and as we get healthier, that could be a very exciting thing.”

Joseph Blandisi (59), Logan Shaw (58), Alex Steeves (57), and Nick Abruzzese (52) all surpassed 50 points during the regular season. Kieffer Bellows (49) would have joined that club if not for an injury that kept him out for five weeks.

The Marlies need their top offensive weapons to turn up for the party. Interestingly, none of the aforementioned players led Toronto in scoring against Belleville during the season series. Topi Niemelä and Kyle Clifford (2G/6A) take that honour, and Toronto will lean heavily on the former to create offense from the blue line. Clifford could be an equally potent threat if utilized correctly. His style of play has undoubtedly helped him succeed against the Senators in the recent past.

The goaltending situation is crystal clear for Toronto. Dennis Hildeby will take over the reins, and the playoffs are a brand-new experience for him as a starter. The good news is that the Swedish netminder is currently in good form after battling through a slump in March.

Special Teams

Special teams will likely play a pivotal role, but there isn’t much to say about an edge one way or the other in the matchup. During the regular-season series, Toronto and Belleville scored nine goals each at 22%. Staying out of the penalty box will be as important as penalty killing and execution on the power play. The return of Kieffer Bellows will boost Toronto’s power play, but Belleville will feel similarly with Angus Crookshank now available to them.

Final Notes

The Marlies must be ready to start on time and perform with the intensity of a Game 7 decider. There is no time to feel your way into a series of this length.

John Gruden and the coaching staff will focus on the starts of games and emphasize playing with the lead even more than usual. The Senators’ success is built on frontrunning, and they rarely lose when leading after the first and second periods throughout the regular season.

In a clash of styles, it will ultimately come down to which team can stamp its authority the quickest. Belleville will attempt to grind down Toronto, chipping the puck in deep and laying the body at every opportunity. The Senators will look to goad the Marlies with physicality and often nefarious tactics (Boko Imama and Tyler Kleven come to mind in that respect). Toronto must pick their moments and prevent the game from turning into a special teams battle. 

The Marlies must be decisive and organized in the defensive zone on retrievals and execute clean breakouts. Puck management is critical as the Senators are a particularly opportunistic team and will be looking to turn the puck over to create odd-man rushes.

As much as they struggled to score this season, Belleville owns the second-best North Division defensive record, allowing 211 goals. Team speed and playing on the interior of the offensive zone is the key for Toronto at 5v5 against a team that will look to stand them up on the blue line and box Toronto to the outside. 

The Marlies’ bottom six is packed full of speed, strength, and greater opportunity for offense than the Senators’ third and fourth lines. Driving inside the dots for players such as Josiah Slavin and Kyle Clifford will reap rewards and could be the difference between the two teams.

Rough Lineup Projection

Bellows – Shaw – Abruzzese
Hirvonen – Gambrell – Steeves
Clifford – Blandisi – Quillan
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow

Lajoie – Niemelä
Rifai – Gaunce
Pietroniro – Kokkonen


Toronto Marlies vs. Belleville Senators -- 2024 Calder Cup First Round Playoff Schedule

The Senators won the best-of-three series 2-1.
DateHome TeamTime (ET)Result
Wednesday, April 24Belleville7:00 p.m.3-1 Loss
Friday, April 26Toronto7:00 p.m. 4-3 Win (OT)
Sunday, April 28Belleville3:00 p.m.4-3 Loss (OT)