April 24 2014 09:22PM
Nobody expected this team to even be here right now. Fans wrote them off. The mainstream media, with their sporadic attention span, wrote them off, Even I considered them to be a potential bottom feeder. But the Toronto Marlies, for the third straight year finished with a playoff berth, exactly 96 points, and a North Division Title.
Tomorrow, they open their postseason. Their opponent? The Milwaukee Admirals
What's An Admiral Anyway?
The Milwaukee Admirals are one of two teams in the American Hockey League to go by the same name. Don't confuse them for the Norfolk Admirals, who the Marlies lost to in the 2012 Calder Cup Finals. Norfolk was affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now they're the affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks.
Okay, the AHL is a confusing beast. The point is they're not Norfolk.
The Admirals are the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators, and have been since Nashville's inception 1998. That's very long for an NHL/AHL affiliation. So long, in fact, that the Admirals weren't even part of the league then, rather a part of the now-defunct International Hockey League. They have one Calder Cup victory, earned in 2003/04.
What Have They Done For Me Lately?
Milwaukee took the third seed in the Midwest Division, but that's no reason to blow them off. The division was one of the strongest in the league, with Chicago and Grand Rapids above them. Only the Providence Bruins had as many points as a third seed. Racking up points in a tough division is important in a league where travel tends to be avoided and you stay close to your local counterparts.
Like the Marlies, the nucleus of this team is young. Their top six point getters are all 23 or younger, including 21 year old and 2011 2nd round pick Miikka Salomaki, who lead the team with 50 points in 75 games. The highest profile player, however, is Filip Forsberg. The 2012 first round pick came to the Predators organization in a now mocked trade from Washington (for Martin "2 goals in 66 games" Erat), and has 34 points in 47 games with the Admirals this year.
If you're looking for someone to ruin the Marlies' hopes because "of course", than Joonas Rask is probably your guy. He only scored 4 goals and 10 assists in 58 games this year, but is Tuukka's brother, so, you know. Also on this team is former Leafs training camp attendee Michael Liambas, who acts as the team's enforcer (267 penalty minutes in 60 games is more than Jamie Devane and David Broll's combined total over 118 games).
Captaining the squad is minor league journeyman Scott Ford. On the bench is former NHLer Dean Evason, who is in his second year as an AHL coach after seven as Washington's assistant.
Goaltending is going to be an interesting question. Scott Daring has the stats (13-6-2, 0.933%, 6 SO), but only played four on the final six games and isn't an NHL prospect. Marek Mazanec, on the other hand, is a Predators pick, played down the stretch, and leads the team in starts.
Or they can fake another Pekka Rinne conditioning stint.
The Season Series?
This didn't particularly go in Toronto's favour. Far from it, actually, as the Admirals won both games. The first was a blowout by shots, and the second by goals.
January's game in Milwaukee saw the Admirals throw 46 shots on Garret Sparks, who stopped an impressive 43 but only got two goals in support from his team. At the same time though, the Marlies couldn't stay out of the penalty box, giving up a whopping 11 powerplays, a situation where all three Milwaukee goals were created.
Sparks shared the net with Christopher Gibson for the March 22nd matchup at Ricoh Coliseum, and while Toronto ended up outshooting Milwaukee by a hair, it was also 3-0 by the midway point of the second period. Neither goalie had a good night, and it was an overall forgettable experience.
Needless to say, it's an uphill battle in this regard.
Keys To Victory?
Drew Macintyre needs to have a big series. He's been very dependable for this team over the course of the year, and the Admirals have the challenge of not having faced him yet, but he still needs to make it count. This team tends to get outshot, and if you don't have a goaltender to keep you in, that ends poorly (ask the Leafs). They could probably trust Gibson or Sparks, but at the same time, putting them in to find out typically comes after a loss, which you can't afford in a best of 5.
While by no means am I suggesting to rush guys back on the ice, the Marlies could use some guys that are on the IR. Peter Holland and Carter Ashton are due back soon. Spencer Abbott seems to still be a bit away with his shoulder injury. Andrew MacWilliam is still recovering from a concussion. These are all very good players on this team, and as such, would be of use right now.
Brandon Kozun needs to keep playing the way he has. I initially described him as "Bonus Abbott" in terms of his ability helping generate secondary scoring from the wing, but for now, he needs to flat out be that top winger. He's been doing the right things, but pucks aren't going in. This would be a good time for averages to even out.
If the two games this year are any indication, how this team reacts to Michael Liambias could mean a lot. If they can get some of their pestier guys to distract him, they're in very good shape. If they let him become a distraction, it's going to lead to penalties, powerplays, and powerplay goals against fast. I'd consider putting Brad Ross in tomorrow with the main goal being to annoy as many people as possible.
Lastly, this team should be going in without internal pressure. The players and staff have talked about two things lately; exceeding expectations and a fun, encouraging environment. When expectations are low, you can be more relaxed and just focus on playing hockey. That's part of how such an inexperienced group got this far; they simply don't know any better at this level. That's a good trait to have come playoff time - relaxed decisions will generally work out better than the panicked ones.
The puck drops on the series tomorrow night, in Milwaukee at 8PM. Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com