Photo of Garret Sparks via Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com. Photo of Christopher Gibson via HartfordWolfPack.com
It’s time for the Toronto Marlies to start playing meaningful hockey again. If we’re being honest about things, the team has been able to coast with a minimum required effort since taking over the first seed from Wilkes-Barre in mid-December. “Typical Marlies Hockey” began to form, where the team appeared to spend 45 minutes experimenting with new ideas before securing the a win, no matter what the score was when they flipped the switch. They come into the playoffs as arguably the best team in AHL history; certainly, they have the third-best record of all time.
But none of that matters if they can’t execute. Remember, this is the same team that was the hottest team in the AHL heading into last year’s playoffs, only to get reverse swept by the Grand Rapids Griffins. This year, they’ll kick things off against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in what should be an interesting series.
Your first question is likely a simple one; how did these two teams fare when facing each other this year? Here’s the thing. They didn’t face each other this year. Or the year before. Or the year before that. Or, well, once in Toronto’s eleven-year history.
The American Hockey League’s schedule can be a weird beast sometimes, in the sense that many teams straight up just don’t face each other very often, if at all. This is even more apparent if the opponent is out-of-conference, and for years, Bridgeport resided in the East while Toronto toiled in the West. That’s since changed, but Toronto’s first year in the East still had had some scheduling kinks and not facing the Sound Tigers was one of them.
The last time the Marlies found themselves in this kind of situation, they were swept by the powerhouse Norfolk Admirals in the 2012 Calder Cup Finals. The good news, though? Nobody who faced the Admirals is still on the roster (Matt Frattin was around but on the IR) and the roles, this time, are reversed; Toronto’s record is better than Norfolk’s while Bridgeport wasn’t quite as good during the season as Toronto was back then.
Teams at a Glance
You don’t need to hear me repeat myself about how great the Marlies are. If you’ve read this blog with any sort of regularity, you’d know that Toronto had the most wins, fewest losses, most points, highest points percentage, and most goals in the league. You’d know that the team is stacked with top-end, young talent and that the roster is mostly comprised of 19 to 23-year-olds who almost all got looks with the Leafs this year. You’d know that their veterans; TJ Brennan, Rich Clune, Andrew Campbell, and Matt Frattin, aren’t slouches and are still a little while away from hitting 30 years old. They’re young, they’re skilled, and they’re determined.
The Sound Tigers, on the other hand, just barely squeaked into the playoffs. Fuelling an NHL rivalry in a whole new way, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders finished two points ahead of the Hartford Wolf Pack, who are affiliated with the Rangers. Some would argue that they’re not particularly deserving of high expectation, though.
Bridgeport’s 40 wins are ahead of only Utica as far as 76-game teams to make the playoffs. They’re the only team in the league that qualified for the playoffs despite giving up more goals than they scored, allowing 220 while scoring 209 over the course of the season. While anything is possible in the post-season, they appear to be the illest prepared to be there.
The Sound Tigers’ star player is Bracken Kearns, who will be turning 35 shortly after the conclusion of this series. Kearns is coming off a season where he set new career highs in goals and points, putting 23 pucks in the back of the net while setting up 30 others. They also have tweener prospect Alan Quine, who picked up 48 points in 56 games at the age of 23.
The fun tapers off after that, though. Top prospect Michael Dal Colle joined the team after his Kingston Frontenacs were eliminated from the OHL playoffs, but the 19-year-old has no points (or shots, even) and a -6 rating in his first three games. Joe Whitney had a hot start to his season but suffered a karmic year-ending injury while hitting Portland skater Shane Harper from behind.
Most intriguing to Leafs fans will be the remains of the Michael Grabner trade that will now take on their former club. Carter Verhaeghe is having a slightly underwhelming rookie season, in which he’s been a reasonable half-point per game but has taken just 33 shots on goal in 30 games. Matt Finn, who was arguably Toronto’s worst player last season, has rebounded to an extent and put up 14 points in 33 games from the blue line.
|Toronto Marlies||Bridgeport Sound Tigers|
|Wins||54 (1st)||40 (14th)|
|Expected Wins||51 (1st)||36 (16th)|
|Est. Fenwick Close||52.82 (6th)||49.35 (17th)|
|Goals Per Game||3.82 (1st)||2.71 (23rd)|
|Goals Against Average||2.50 (4th)||2.86 (15th)|
|Goal Differential||+103 (1st)||-11 (19th)|
|Goals For Percentage||60.42 (1st)||48.7 (19th)|
|Shots Per Game||32.49 (4th)||28.93 (24th)|
|Shots Against Average||29.71 (11th)||29.59 (10th)|
|Shot Differential||+211 (7th)||-50 (17th)|
|Shots For Percentage||52.23 (7th)||49.44 (17th)|
|Shooting Percentage||11.17% (2nd)||8.91 (17th)|
|Save Percentage||0.918 (3rd)||0.908 (18th)|
|PDO||102.96 (1st)||99.71 (18th)|
|Penalty Kill||84.0% (12th)||84.9% (9th)|
|Special Teams Efficiency||101.4% (12th)||97% (25th)|
|Penalty Differential||+40 (2nd)||-51 (29th)|
On paper, this is a rout. The Marlies win, more, shoot more, control the game better, score more, stop more pucks, draw more penalties, and do better on special teams. There is no statistical silver bullet that gives the Sound Tigers as much as a fighting chance.
Between The Pipes
They say that even the friendliest of rivalries never disappear; they just relocate to different venues. Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks and Bridgeport Sound Tigers goaltender Christopher Gibson had a friendly rivalry at the beginning of the 2014/15 season as they vied to stay up with the team. Gibson won the battle and played 45 games while Sparks headed to the Orlando Solar Bears. But with the Calder Cup Playoffs now underway, it’s time for the two to decide who wins the war for their team.
Both goaltenders have had relatively solid AHL seasons. Gibson played in 42 games and posted a 19-11-6 record with a 0.909 save percentage and two shutouts, while Sparks was one of the league’s top goalies early in the season, going 14-4-3 with a 0.928 save percentage and three shutouts. Both saw some NHL time, with Sparks playing 17 games while Gibson has appeared in 4. Neither were particularly mindblowing, dipping below 0.900 on the year, but as 22 and 23-year-old rookies, not much was expected of them.
With that said, there’s the outside possibility that fans don’t see either goaltender right away. Gibson has been up with the Islanders in case of emergency since April 2nd, leaving the Sound Tigers to decide between Eamon McCadam and Stephon Williams, both of whom appear to be below replacement level at this exact moment. On the other side of things, while Sparks looked fantastic in a 43-save performance during the regular season finale, there hasn’t been much reason to drag Antoine Bibeau out of the net in the past few months; despite an awful start to the season, the young netminder has been quite good since December.
|Saturday April 23rd||7:00 PM||Bridgeport||1050||LeafsTV|
|Sunday April 24th||5:00 PM||Bridgeport||1050||LeafsTV|
|Thursday April 28th||7:30 PM||Ricoh Coliseum||1050||Rogers|
|Friday April 29th*||7:30 PM||Ricoh Coliseum||1050||Rogers|
|Sunday May 1st*||3:00 PM||Ricoh Coliseum||1050||Rogers|
It would be an absolute shocker to see the Marlies lose in the first round. The team was historically dominant despite a rotating cast and enters the postseason with the best 22 options that they have; as long as everybody finds chemistry again, they should be the favourites in any game they play.
Bridgeport, on the other hand, just barely made it into the playoffs and may have even squeaked in over more deserving clubs. They’re without a competent goaltender right now, take far too many penalties for a team that has to face a talent-stacked club in the playoffs, and clinched the last seed despite losing 6 of their final 10 games, including the final pair.
I’m going to call this as Marlies in Four, just because the team is coming in on a two-game win streak and pure percentages would lead you to believe that means they’ll drop one of the away games. A sweep wouldn’t be entirely shocking, though, as long as the Marlies take this series just as seriously as they would against a powerhouse. If they do, it’s as good as a gimmie.