Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
This house is a circus, berserk as… hey, the Toronto Marlies are in the Eastern Conference Finals! It took some rough and often dirty games against Albany and a lot of self-restraint to get there, but they did. Now that they’ve guaranteed that they won’t be second “super team” to get eliminated early, the blue and white will take their talents to Hershey, Pennsylvania to take on the Bears, who are the definition of an AHL landmark.
Toronto and Hershey only played two games against each other this season, and they couldn’t have gone more differently.
In the Marlies’ lone visit to the Giant Center on December 19th, the team fell behind in the game’s early minutes but held no prisoners at that point. TJ Brennan scored a pair of goals in the third period, while Mark Arcobello, Zach Hyman, Brandon Leipsic, and Stuart Percy also made their contributions to the game sheet in minutes prior. The win came at a time when many were worried that losing William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen to the World Juniors would decimate the team.
Two months later, the teams reconvened at Ricoh Coliseum. Hershey once again picked up the first goal, and the Marlies once again responded with a pair of their own, but the Bears scored the next four to close out the night with a 5-2 win. Garret Sparks was pulled after three goals against on 11 shots; Antoine Bibeau only added another 7 saves.
Teams At A Glance
Hershey has been dragging through these playoffs while kicking and screaming, holding the lowest win percentage and goal differential of any surviving team. The Bears were taken to five games by the Portland Pirates, outscoring them by just two, and were actually outscored by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in their series but still managed to take it thanks to an OT winner in Game 7.
That isn’t to say that the Bears are passengers on the hype train, though. Hersey led the tightly-contested Atlantic Division with 98 points in the regular season and had the league’s fifth-best record by points percentage. The only teams better in the East this year? Toronto and Albany.
Hershey’s star player is 30-year-old Chris Bourque, whose 80 points in 72 games put him atop the AHL this season. He’s been quiet throughout the playoffs, though, scoring just three points against Portland and four against Wilkes-Barre. Their top scorers in these playoffs are veteran Carter Camper and 19-year-old Jakub Vrana, who each have four goals and five assists in 12 games. Other notable younger names on the roster include Madison Bowey, Riley Barber, Nathan Walker and Travis Boyd.
As for the Marlies, we all know who they are already. Many will be hoping that William Nylander steps things up; the phenom 1.18 point-per-game forward has been less productive in these playoffs in a relative sense, scoring just 2 goals and 4 assists in 9 games. Eyes will definitely remain on Connor Carrick who has 14 points in 10 games and will now face his former team. Andrew Campbell appearing to be ready to play full-time again is a great add to the back-end, and the team will be hoping that whatever was ailing Nikita Soshnikov is just about over and done with.
|Toronto Marlies||Hershey Bears|
|Wins||54 (1st)||43 (6th)|
|Expected Wins||51 (1st)||43 (6th)|
|Est. Fenwick Close||52.82 (6th)||50.89% (13th)|
|Goals Per Game||3.82 (1st)||3.33 (3rd)|
|Goals Against Average||2.50 (4th)||2.8 (13th)|
|Goal Differential||+103 (1st)||+40 (6th)|
|Goals For Percentage||60.42 (1st)||54.29 (6th)|
|Shots Per Game||32.49 (4th)||27.92 (29th)|
|Shots Against Average||29.71 (11th)||27.76 (4th)|
|Shot Differential||+211 (7th)||+12 (16th)|
|Shots For Percentage||52.23 (7th)||50.14 (16th)|
|Shooting Percentage||11.17% (2nd)||11.34 (1st)|
|Save Percentage||0.918 (3rd)||0.902 (27th)|
|PDO||102.96 (1st)||101.54 (2nd)|
|Penalty Kill||84.0% (12th)||82.8% (17th)|
|Special Teams Efficiency||101.4% (12th)||99.3% (18th)|
|Penalty Differential||+40 (2nd)||+8 (16th)|
There isn’t really much here that the Bears seem overly threatening at. They’re better at suppressing shots than the Marlies, but that didn’t go that well for the Devils. Their shooting percentage is higher, but if you don’t have obvious talent, that’s often a bad thing. Toronto shoots more, scores more, draws more penalties, does better on special teams, and has better goaltending.
There’s a clear edge heading one direction; it would take some mental gymnastics to say otherwise.
Between The Pipes
These two teams couldn’t be in more different positions in goal. Hershey has a pair of vets while the Marlies must decide between two younger prospects.
If the playoffs so far are any indication, 29-year-old Justin Peters will get the lion’s share of the Bears’ starts over 35-year-old Dan Ellis. Peters has been excellent this postseason, putting up a 0.935 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 appearances. Can he maintain that, though? It seems unlikely; he was a 0.896 over 37 regular season games and was a sub-900 goalie last year as well.
Toronto has a much tougher decision to make. They gave Antoine Bibeau games 2-7 in the Albany Series, but continuing to run him through, quite frankly, doesn’t make a ton of sense. Garret Sparks has been sitting since giving up two goals in 29 shots in Game 1, which is a more than respectable result. In three games, he has a 0.972 save percentage. For those counting, that’s the highest of any goalie who has played in these playoffs. Bibeau was very good in games 2-5, but his numbers in Game 6 and 7 left a lot to be desired.
Performance implies that you start getting Sparks into the net again sooner than later. The only issue? He hasn’t played in two weeks. It’s a rough situation to be in.
|Friday May 20th||7:00 PM||Hershey||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Saturday May 21st||7:00 PM||Hershey||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Wednesday May 25th||7:30 PM||Toronto||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Friday May 27th||7:30 PM||Toronto||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Sunday May 29th||3:00 PM||Toronto||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Tuesday May 31st||7:00 PM||Hershey||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
|Thursday June 2nd||7:30 PM||Toronto||TSN 1050||TSN 2|
You might be wondering why the Marlies have home ice advantage, yet are starting the Conference Finals on the road. The answer is simple; Hershey isn’t a small city, doesn’t have many places to host big events, and the circus is in town from May 25th to 30th.
I took the Marlies in 6 games in Albany preview, and hey, that was a relatively close call; they were an OT goal way from it being 5, and it ended up being 7. I didn’t expect the games to get as rough as they did, however.
Make no mistake, Hershey is a very good team as well. But they aren’t as good as Albany, let alone Toronto. They’ve barely made it through both of the last two rounds. Their goaltending has been the difference, but that same goaltending was among the league’s worst for most of the year.
My guess? A couple of the colder Marlies are going to see their sticks catch some fire (Brandon Leipsic should be worth keeping an eye one), Peters will see a few bounces go their way, and the Marlies win this in five games.