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Photo Credit: Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com

Series Preview: Toronto Marlies vs. Albany Devils

Time can be a flat circle sometimes. Just when you think that you’ve done something for the one and only time, it’ll come back at you again, and again. Over, and over. The Toronto Marlies have had a few repeat playoff opponents over the years, but if there’s one that people were hoping to avoid this early in the postseason, it was probably the Albany Devils.

Well, it looks like they’ll have to jump straight into the boiler pot and get on with it. While both teams are a bit different, they’re still the same two organizations that went through a bloodbath of a series a little less than a year ago.

Last Time

Games got chippy. People got hurt. Enemies were made, but it led to a thrilling, seven-game extravaganza that was decided in the final minutes, with a perfectly fitting ending.

Season Series

 

The two teams faced each other eight times this season, with Albany coming out ahead in five of them. Perhaps most encouraging here is that, even in leaner times, the Marlies only scored fewer than two goals on the Devils twice, and in the two games they faced them in after the start of their turnaround in late January, they picked up 10 tallies, with the loss of the pair coming in overtime.

Devils at a Glance

While most in Toronto think of aggression when they think of Albany, there’s a pretty decent group of players on this roster that are worth watching. 21-year-old John Quenneville put up an impressive 46 points in his 58 game rookie season with the team and is riding a six-game point streak. Blake Coleman missed much of last season, but scored at a 25+ goal pace this year and has the capability to pull out monster nights. Nick Lappin struggled up with the big club but has been a near point per game forward with this group. Rod Pelley’s point production has taken a further dip this year, but he’s still a capable shutdown player, and Jacob MacDonald can add some offensive punch from the point.

More than anything, though, Rick Kowalsky continues to employ a defence-first system that is very familiar to fans of the Devils of old.

Marlies at a Glance

This isn’t last years team, and with a couple of recent call-ups, trades, and departures, these Marlies aren’t even the full year’s Marlies. But there are still some big names to keep an eye on. Kerby Rychel has rebounded from a sluggish star to the season to become the physical, net-driving presence that many hoped he could be. Brendan Leipsic is healthy and scoring at a point-per-game pace. Cal O’Reilly is yet to get his first goal with the Marlies, but he’s been a stable two-way forward since the deadline. Seth Griffith continues to rack up assists at a near one-per-game pace, and Toronto’s defence core is as healthy as its been all year.

A player I’m particularly curious to watch in this series is Mike Sislo. Brought in near the roster deadline to make up for the departure of Byron Froese, Sislo already has 6 powerplay goals in 18 games, plus an additional two even strength tallies. The veteran was one of the biggest threats for the Devils last year and is catching heat at just the right time. We’ll see which side of the knowing each other’s secrets comes out ahead in the end. I’m also looking forward to Andreas Johnsson actually getting a chance to play.

Fancy Stats

Statistic Toronto Marlies Albany Devils
POINTS PERCENTAGE 0.586 (13th) 0.546 (17th)
REGULATION WINS 37 (7th) 28 (16th)
REG+OT WINS (ROW) 39 (9th) 36 (14th)
EST. FENWICK CLOSE 52.86 (5th) 51.89 (6th)
GOALS PER GAME 3.18 (8th) 2.64 (21st)
GOALS AGAINST AVERAGE 2.71 (11th) 2.67 (9th)
GOAL DIFFERENTIAL 36 (9th) -2 (17th)
GOALS FOR PERCENTAGE 54.02 (8th) 49.75 (17th)
SHOTS PER GAME 30.68 (9th) 30.22 (12th)
SHOTS AGAINST AVERAGE 28.46 (6th) 27.16 (1st)
SHOT DIFFERENTIAL 169 (8th) 233 (5th)
SHOTS FOR PERCENTAGE 51.88 (8th) 52.67 (5th)
SHOOTING PERCENTAGE 9.95 (4th) 8.47 (23rd)
SAVE PERCENTAGE 0.909 (15th) 0.905 (22nd)
PDO 100.81 (10th) 98.99 (23rd)
POWERPLAY 22.30% (4th) 17.90% (15th)
PENALTY KILL 81.80% (17th) 84.00% (6th)
SPECIAL TEAMS EFFICIENCY 104.10% (7th) 101.90% (13th)
PENALTY DIFFERENTIAL -7 (18th) -13 (21st)

In some ways, these teams are very tightly matched. They’re neck and neck in shots-based possession, with Toronto being a bit higher event and better at generating offence while, once again, the Devils are elite defensively. The gap is probably larger from a skill perspective than the numbers show, though; their save percentage has gone up since stabilising and switching Sparks and Kaskisuo, and some early season puck luck has turned around, leaving a highly skilled team back in top end territory with their shot placement. Their SH% has dipped in recent weeks, so it’s possible they’re hitting another cold spell, but there’s still a decent gap. Toronto’s lethal powerplay will play a huge factor if this series gets rough again.

Between The Pipes

The safe money is on MacKenzie Blackwood being Albany’s starter for much of this series. The 20-year-old, selected by New Jersey in the second round of the 2015 Draft, has had a relatively good showing as a rookie, posting a 17-14-3 record through 36 games and a 0.907 save percentage. Blackwood’s performances throughout the year have been pretty consistently along the average, though his last two weeks haven’t ben overly stellar; two shutouts cloud the fact that he’s been below 0.890 in 4 of his last 7 appearances. Blackwood’s 0.907 ranks him 28th among goalies with 1440+ minutes played, of which 46 goaltenders are eligible.

In Toronto’s net, it looks like the blue and white are content with running with Garret Sparks as their starter this time around, and it’s hard to blame them. While last year’s debate between him and Antoine Bibeau left a lot of people guessing as the latter puck-stopper got the nod for much of the postseason, the gap is undeniable this year. Even with two rough-ish nights to close the year, Sparks ended the season with a 0.922 save percentage, good for 10th in the league. Sparks posted above the league average save percentages in 64.5% of his starts, which is encouraging as far as getting long-road consistency goes.

The Schedule

  • Game 1: Tonight @ Albany, 7:00 PM (Away)
  • Game 2: April 22nd @ Albany, 5:00 PM (Away)
  • Game 3: April 26th vs. Albany, 7:00 PM (Home)
  • Game 4: April 28th vs. Albany, 7:00 PM (Home)*
  • Game 5: April 29th vs. Albany, 7:00 PM (Home)*

*If Necessary

Forecast

The issue with best-of-five’s is that it’s impossible to say, with any definition, that you know what the end outcome is going to be. A rough weekend can wipe out a team’s season in an instant, and  the 2-3 format for scheduling leads to an interesting dynamic as far as home ice advantage.

Ultimately, while Albany has done better in the season series, the Marlies are much improved from the part of the year where the Devils picked up their wins. They’ve been the best team in the Division by a good margin, and arguably one of the best teams in the league since mid-January, and there’s nothing to suggest that that momentum won’t last. While they’re missing one of their top forwards in Kasperi Kapanen thanks to his deserved call-up to the Leafs, there’s still plenty of offensive talent to get the job done for them. I’m thinking that Albany takes one one of their home games, but the Marlies close this out in 4 Games.