The Toronto Marlies’ reward for sweeping Bridgeport is a tough match-up against the Albany Devils in the second round.
Due to the American Hockey League’s decision to plump for brackets instead of reseeding, the two best teams in the East, and two of the league’s top three teams by points percentage, will do battle in what really should have been a prospective Conference Final.
The Devils eliminated the Utica Comets three games to one in the first round, marking the first series victory by a New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate since the Albany River Rats reached the Conference Finals in 1998.
Better Know Your Enemy: The Albany Devils
It’s been a record-breaking season for the Devils franchise, setting new highs in wins (46), points (102) and consecutive home victories (11).
As a result, Rick Kowalsky, head coach of the Albany Devils since their inaugural season in 2010, was voted the AHL’s outstanding coach for 2015-16 ahead of Sheldon Keefe. The 44-year-old Ontario native is the fourth youngest active coach in the league, and began his career behind the bench with Norfolk in 2005 at age 33.
The backbone of Albany’s accomplishments so far this season has been their strong defensive structure. The Devils owned the best defensive record in the East and second best in the league, allowing just 167 goals in total. Albany were even more stingy on home ice, with 1.76 goals against per game mark at the Times Union Centre being the main reason why they tied Toronto for a league-best 27 home victories.
The Devils finished as the best possession team in the League by Estimated Fenwick Close Percentage, and were the best shot suppression team in the League, allowing just 24.4 shots against per game.
Offensively, Albany managed just 212 goals during the regular season, the second least in the Eastern Conference among playoff teams. They are somewhat reliant on an excellent powerplay, which accounted for almost 26% of their goals (55). Their third-ranked penalty kill also chipped in with nine shorthanded goals.
The Devils have received a ton of help from their parent club in the quest for a first Calder Cup win. After failing to make the NHL post-season, New Jersey have returned seven players to Albany.
On defense, 25-year-old Seth Helgeson and 21-year-old Damon Severson boost the blue line corps. Severson spent the whole season in the NHL, appearing in 72 games and racking up 21 points in the process. The right-handed shooter leads Albany with five assists, three of which have come on the man advantage. Helgeson split the season between the two leagues and is more experienced than his younger counterpart, with this being his third year as a professional after graduating from the University of Minnesota.
More crucial for Albany is that some much-needed scoring help has arrived.
Leading goal scorer Mike Sislo (27) is back in the ranks and has already proved his worth with two goals and an assist in the Utica series. Sislo led the AHL in powerplay markers through the regular season with 14.
Blake Pietila may have only had a seven-game stint in the NHL, but the rookie no doubt benefited from the experience. Inserted in game four of the Utica series, the left winger scored twice, one shorthanded and the other an empty netter, and put up a pair of assists.
Reid Boucher spent 39 games with New Jersey, registering eight goals and 19 points. The 22 year old made hay against Utica with three goals and as many assists, leading the team with six points. He was nearly a point-per-game producer earlier in the season for Albany, and found the net 19 times in 34 outings.
Joseph Blandisi is yet another New Jersey rookie having a fine season, having recorded 17 points in 41 NHL games. The Ontario native began the season in the AHL and proved productive with nine goals and 23 points in 27 outings. Blandisi recorded two points in the first round series decider and tallied the game winner in the opener.
Last but not least is Pavel Zacha. The 2015 sixth overall pick enjoyed his NHL debut for New Jersey in the last game of the season, notching two assists versus the Leafs. The Czech forward has played in every game of the post-season for Albany so far, recording a goal and two assists, with his goal coming on the powerplay. The rookie has also received some time on the penalty kill.
Veteran center Jim O’Brien is also worthy of note. The 27 year old has 322 regular season games in the AHL under his belt and a further 35 post-season outings. He knows what it takes in the postseason, having won a Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators in 2011, and has four points to his name so far in this post-season campaign.
Although Albany has the very experienced Yann Danis on their roster, it’s highly likely that Scott Wedgwood will get the start between the pipes. Wedgwood played for the entirety of the series with Utica, recording a 1.93GAA and 0.922 save percentage. Yet another Ontario native on this roster, the 23 year old only featured in 22 regular season games due to injury, but won 14 of those with a 0.933 save percentage. He also made his NHL debut this season, playing on four occasions and recording highly impressive numbers.
Keys to the Series
Toronto and Albany met six times during the regular season, with the Marlies coming out on top with a 4-2-0-0 record. Not a whole lot can be gleaned from that series, with both teams either not fully up to speed or unable to call upon a complete roster. The first three encounters were played inside the opening three weeks of the season, while the latter three were contested by a Toronto team with its post-trade deadline roster.
If Toronto are to eliminate Albany, they probably have to win the special teams battle, or at the very least match up. The Devils were great on both sides of it this past season and certainly dominated the Comets in that department in the opening round with a 25% success rate with the man advantage. Not only did they also kill all 14 penalties taken, Albany tallied two shorthanded goals in the process. Certainly staying disciplined will be key, something the Marlies failed to do during game three against Bridgeport, almost paying the price.
Albany has shown a propensity for strong starts to post-season games thus far, out-scoring Utica 6-2 in the first period and 7-1 in the second. It’s vital that Toronto start games better than they did in the Bridgeport series, as the defensively-stout Albany — second in goals against per game, first in shot against per game — will be a far harder nut to crack should the Marlies fall behind.
Sheldon Keefe will have a raft of line-up decisions to make, the biggest of which resides between the pipes.
Who to Start?
Antoine Bibeau was pulled in the last game after allowing four goals on 12 shots. In fairness, the team deserted him and you could only lay one of those four at his feet at most. It should not be forgotten that the Quebec native was excellent in game one, where he made 19 saves in the opening period alone. Both shutouts by Toronto against Albany during the regular season were recorded by Bibeau, which is perhaps another point to factor in.
Garret Sparks has yet to allow a goal, but the Marlies have undoubtedly played their best hockey of the post-season in front of him. Surprisingly, there are no back-to-backs in this series, so there is a possibility that Keefe may decide to ride a hot hand should the game one starter impress.
The Marlies‘ defensive depth has been bolstered by the addition of 2015 draft pick Travis Dermott after his Erie Otters bowed out to Mitch Marner’s London Knights in the OHL Western Conference Final. It’s highly unlikely the blue liner will see any playing time, as there are no reported injuries plus Rinat Valiev and David Kolomatis were both healthy scratches for the last game of the Bridgeport series. As with Jeremy Bracco and Andrew Nielsen, this is more about getting Dermott around the team, into practices, into the team’s facilities, and working with their development staff.
One player that may find his way into the line-up is Andreas Johnson. Johnson capped another successful season in Sweden with a Frölunda team that won the Champions Hockey League and SHL Championship this year, finishing sixth in the SHL in points scoring despite his age with 44 points in 55 games, and first in powerplay points. He’ll be disappointed in his individual playoff production with just 4 points in 16 games, but happy about the fact that his team won its first league championship since 2005.
Despite only joining the Marlies on Friday, the left winger has more going for him than other prospects added to the roster as far as his chance of jumping into some playoff action. Johnson has three seasons of experience playing in a men’s league (SHL) against a roughly comparable level of competition to the AHL, and at 21 years old he is a little older and more physically developed.
The Thommie Bergman draft selection has something to prove as a former seventh round pick. He has been a less talked about prospect in the Toronto system of late with the Leafs loading up on young talent both in quality and quantity. Making an impression on this currently stacked Marlies team is the next step on the ladder for Johnson after a successful couple of seasons in the SHL.
Matt Frattin, Tobias Lindberg and Nikita Soshnikov were scratched for the last game versus the Sound Tigers, but you would expect Soshnikov to reclaim his place from Colin Smith, assuming he’s healthy.
Toronto Marlies Round 2 Playoff Schedule vs. Albany
All series from here on out switch to a best of seven and a 2-3-2 format, beginning at Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday. As mentioned before, the teams have equally strong home records through the regular season, so those first two games in Toronto could prove pivotal in the series.
|1||Wednesday, May 4||Toronto||7:30 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN1050|
|2||Friday, May 6||Toronto||7:30 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN1050|
|3||Sunday, May 8||Albany||5:00 p.m. EST||Leafs TV TV/TSN1050|
|4||Tuesday, May 10||Albany||7:00 p.m. EST||Leafs TV/TSN1050|
|5*||Thursday, May 12||Albany||7:00 p.m. EST||Leafs TV/TSN1050|
|6*||Saturday, May 14||Toronto||3:00 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN 1050|
|7*||Monday, May 16||Toronto||7:30 p.m. EST||Rogers TV/TSN 1050|
Toronto Marlies vs. Albany Devils Matchup Stats
|Points %||0.75 (1st)||0.671 (3rd)|
|GF/G||3.82 (1st)||2.76 (T-17th)|
|GA/G||2.5 (4th)||2.17 (2nd)|
|Goal Differential||+103 (1st)||+45 (3rd)|
|Shots/Game||32.5 (4th)||29.75 (16th)|
|Est. Fenwick Close %||52.82 (6th)||55.77 (1st)|
|Shots Against/Game||29.7 (12th)||24.38 (1st)|
|Shooting Percentage||11.17 (2nd)||9.09 (14th)|
|Save Percentage||.918 (3rd)||.914 (8th)|
|PDO||102.96 (1st)||100.48 (12th)|
|Powerplay||17.4% (10th)||18.3% (8th)|
|Penalty Kill||84% (12th)||87.2% (3rd)|
|PIMs/G||12.3 (27th)||16.2 (7th)|