The Toronto Marlies continue to be full of surprises. At the nineteen game mark of the season, they were the worst team in the American Hockey League and well on their way to being the least successful Leafs affiliate of our generation. They then proceeded to win 35 of their next 57 games to sneak into the playoffs, and are now one game away from potentially sweeping their first round matchup.
At this point, you can’t deny that the team is “for real”. Though, with that considered, they’re far from invincible, and there are a few reasons need to continue treating themselves as underdogs.
For one, the Griffins are a very good team. While the Marlies won at a 112 point pace over the course of their big push, Grand Rapids managed to pick up 100 points, fourth most in the league, over the course of the entire year. While Christopher Gibson has been very good between the pipes, the Griffins have scored more goals than any team in the league this year. Their special teams are a lot better, ranking 6th (PK) and 17th (PP) compared to Toronto’s 28th (PK) and 29th (PP). On a one-game-at-a-time scale, this is not a team to take lightly.
Not just that, but some players are due for success. Kevin Porter, who finished fourth in team scoring, has yet to get a point yet, nor has top offensive defenceman Nathan Paetch or promising Czech rookie Tomas Nosek. Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha both have the natural ability to go hot at any moment. Teemu Pulkkinen and Andy Miele have already seen some success. If Detroit loses tonight but Grand Rapids picks up a victory tonight, they could add the likes of Landon Ferraro and Mitch Callahan. That’s without even mentioning their goalies; neither Tom McCollum or Jared Coreau are typically as disappointing as they were in their first two starts.
On the other side of the coin, some key Marlies are on big hot streaks. TJ Brennan, Byron Froese, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Matt Frattin, Greg McKegg, and William Nylander all picked up at least two points in the first two games of the playoffs. Most of these guys (along with Brandon Leipsic) have produced above their typical rates in the past ten games or so. The good news is that some are just regressing back up to where they should be, and that there’s eight names here. This isn’t Monty Burns’ softball team; it would take some awful luck for all of them to fizzle back to rate at once.
Jeff Blashill is another potential X factor as well. Jonas Siegel wrote a piece about the Griffins’ bench boss today and in it, you’ll see that Blashill is considered a sharp, quick, forward thinking, high attention to detail coach who will adapt and adjust to win. That’s typically a long term statement, but if he’s as good as advertised, you’ll see Grand Rapids adjust their game.
Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time the Griffins powered through this team. No, I’m not referring to the 2012/13 playoffs; McKegg is the only player that has participated in both series for Toronto, which makes that an unfair comparison. However, heading into this series, the Marlies were on a three game losing streak against Grand Rapids. The season series opened with a 4-2 win, but in the games that followed, Toronto was outscored 17-4. In fact, the present nine game winning streak started after losing 7-2 to the very same Grand Rapids Griffins on April 4th.
At the end of the day, the Toronto Marlies have become a very, very good team. But they’re facing another one, and it’s a team that in both games looked like they were going to take over. They need to treat every game as if it’s an elimination game, and not putting themselves in a position where they have to rally back is important as well.
With that said, head coach Gord Dineen feels confident in the team’s ability to close this one out, as long as they stick to who they are. “It’s a matter of maintaining our identity, and playing to our structure.” Game three is tonight at 7PM and will be broadcast on LeafsTV.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com