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Photo Credit: Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com

Series Preview: Toronto Marlies vs. Syracuse Crunch

Right out of one bloodbath, and into another. The Toronto Marlies managed to deliver their finishing blow to the Albany Devils in the fourth game of their best of five series, and will move on to another incredibly physical rival of sorts in the Syracuse Crunch, beginning later tonight.

Season Series

Toronto and Syracuse had the pleasure of facing each other eight times this season. The Crunch picked up the first three wins in November, January, and February, but once the re-invigorated edition of the Marlies really kicked in, they ran the table, winning the next five. With that said, it wasn’t a complete route; one of those was won in overtime, and the last two were won in a shootout.

The only game in this series that didn’t end in a one-goal margin was on March 26th, in which the Marlies won a game that included 27 penalties and three fights.

Toronto finished the series with a 5-2-1 (11 pts) record, while Syracuse finished 3-2-3 (9 pts). The Crunch outshot the Marlies by 21 (249-228) and took more penalties in the process (52-47).

Crunch at a Glance

The Crunch are the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now, when you think of the Tampa Bay Lightning, you think of fast, skilled, energetic play, right? Well, you probably shouldn’t, as they’ve slowly been creeping up the penalty minutes per game rankings in the NHL, and their next wave of players are far from the exemption here.

If anything, they’re the exclamation point. The Crunch are a team that live and die on the success of their special teams, simply because they spend so much time on them. This year, Syracuse was first in the AHL in both penalties drawn and penalties taken and shared the lead in fighting majors with very same Albany Devils that Toronto just eliminated.

They haven’t pulled any funny business like that just yet, instead focusing on their own 5-game defeat on the St. John’s IceCaps, but some of their players have still “broken protocol” at times.

A good example? Let’s talk about Jake Dotchin. If that name sounds familiar, he’s the guy who sucker punched Andrew Nielsen, injured Kasperi Kapanen, got called up to the Lightning, and eventually kneed Auston Matthews. He’s already up to ten minutes in penalties this postseason, ranging from high sticking, to diving, to unsportsmanlike, to boarding.

Interestingly, most of Syracuse’s penalty minute leaders (six of their top nine) haven’t played in these playoffs, though their outright leader (Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond) is actually Marlies property now. Dotchin joins Cory Conacher and Dominik Masin as players who have made the cut from that selection of players.

Conacher is always one to watch, as the 27-year-old’s 60 points in 56 games have solidified him as a top-end AHL Player, regardless of how his NHL aspirations have panned out over the years. He’s also always had a knack for stepping it up against Toronto, and that remained the case this year; while the Marlies shut him out in his final three games against them this year, he did manage to score four goals and five assists in the first four appearances, leaving him above a point-per-game in the season series.

Most important to Marlies fans, most likely, is getting to see Byron Froese face his former team. Froese was one of Toronto’s most effective scorers in both this year and in 2014/15, but was moved to Tampa Bay in the Brian Boyle trade just before the NHL’s trade deadline.

One last player worth keeping an eye on: Matt Taormina. Brought into the NHL by Lou Lamoriello’s former New Jersey Devils back in 2010/11, Taormina was never able to find a regular place in a top-level lineup but has excelled as an offensive defenceman in the AHL. This year was his finest yet, picking up a career-high 60 points in 70 games to earn himself the Eddie Shore Award for the league’s most outstanding defenceman.

Syracuse’s playoff roster has plenty of players who have seen NHL time with the Bolts this year; Dotchin, Conacher, and Froese join Matthew Peca, Erik Condra, Gabriel Dumont, Slater Koekkoek, Joel Vermin, Adam Erne, Michael Bournival, and Yanni Gourde as dual-league citizens this year.

Marlies at a Glance

We all know what went down in the previous series at this point. We saw a goaltending change, the return (and temporary re-disappearance) of Kasperi Kapanen, and we saw Justin Holl have the best week or so of hockey of his career.

The Marlies don’t plan on changing much lineup-wise tonight; Kapanen appears to be healthy, which will delay the North American debut of 2016 draft pick Carl Grundstrom, who is here to help out if the opportunity arises. Frederik Gauthier has impressively scored at a point per game pace in this postseason, as has Travis Dermott.

Beyond that, everything stays the same; Toronto doesn’t appear to be looking to change their lineup to adjust for fisticuffs. If anything goes down to start the series off, though, they won’t be completely helpless; players like Kerby Rychel, Rinat Valiev, and Andrew Campbell can hold their own. I imagine they’ll be looking to just stick to hockey, though.

Regular Season Fancy Stats

STATISTIC TORONTO MARLIES SYRACUSE CRUNCH
POINTS PERCENTAGE 0.586 (13TH) 0.546 (17TH)
REG+OT WINS (ROW) 39 (9TH) 36 (12TH)
EST. FENWICK CLOSE 52.86 (5TH) 51.52 (9TH)
GOALS PER GAME 3.18 (8TH) 3.02 (10TH)
GOALS AGAINST AVERAGE 2.71 (11TH) 2.89 (22ND)
GOAL DIFFERENTIAL 36 (9TH) 10 (13TH)
GOALS FOR PERCENTAGE 54.02 (8TH) 51.11 (13TH)
SHOTS PER GAME 30.68 (9TH) 30.33 (11TH)
SHOTS AGAINST AVERAGE 28.46 (6TH) 27.21 (2ND)
SHOT DIFFERENTIAL 169 (8TH) 237 (4TH)
SHOTS FOR PERCENTAGE 51.88 (8TH) 52.71 (4TH)
SHOOTING PERCENTAGE 9.95 (4TH) 9.49 (9TH)
SAVE PERCENTAGE 0.909 (15TH) 0.897 (27TH)
PDO 100.81 (10TH) 99.29 (22ND)
POWERPLAY 22.30% (4TH) 16.40% (22ND)
PENALTY KILL 81.80% (17TH) 83.70% (8TH)
SPECIAL TEAMS EFFICIENCY 104.10% (7TH) 100.1% (11TH)
PENALTY DIFFERENTIAL -7 (18TH) 11 (10TH)

These are two pretty close together teams on the surface. Toronto has obviously been in another gear since late January, but seasons are played in full for a reason, and in that full season, they’ve just barely trailed their opponents. The biggest difference here appears to be in the quality of their powerplay, and in goal.

Between The Pipes

Kasimir Kaskisuo replaced Garret Sparks midway through Game 2 of the series after Sparks was injured in a collision, and he’s played unbelievable hockey since, stopping 95.2% of the shots he faced the rest of the way. He’s punching way above where he was with Orlando during the season, but even if he settles down and plays even slightly above average the rest of the way, the Marlies will likely be more than happy with that.

That also depends on how Mike McKenna plays in the other set of pipes, though. McKenna is a long-time AHL veteran who has put up some stellar years, including three 0.920+ seasons in a league where the average is ten points lower than the NHL. This year hasn’t been super brilliant for him; in the last fourteen regular season games he played with the Crunch, he posted a 5-5-1 record with a 0.901 save percentage.

In these playoffs, though, he’s been stellar, allowing just eight goals in four games and posting a 0.932 save percentage. One of these hot streaks is going to have to end soon; Toronto will be hoping it’s not their guy’s.

The Schedule

  • Game 1: Tonight @ Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Away)
  • Game 2: May 6 @ Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Away)
  • Game 3: May 9 vs. Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Home)
  • Game 4: May 10 vs. Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Home)
  • Game 5: May 13 @ Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Away)*
  • Game 6: May 15 vs. Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Home)*
  • Game 7: May 17 @ Syracuse, 7:00 PM (Away)*

*If Necessary

Forecast

This should be a very, very hard-fought series. Toronto is the more skilled team of the two, but Syracuse’s top scorers (Conacher, Taormina, Froese; and Condra) can really turn a game around on a whim, and the team knows how to throw any concept of momentum off by making games more aggressive.

If they find that they’re gelling particularly well on the powerplay or penalty kill, that might become even more amplified. It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword style of play, but when you need to just need to get out of the woods with four wins in twelve days, no option is ruled out.

As Toronto has shown with Albany in back to back years, the best way to respond is to focus and keep playing their game. Syracuse doesn’t have the depth to go toe-to-toe with Toronto’s support scoring lines, so if they can keep pressure constant and keep themselves out of the penalty box, they should be able to continue the momentum they carried late into the season.

Syracuse could very well win this series, so don’t be shocked if Toronto takes another so-close-yet-so-far exit, but I’ve still got the Marlies as six-game favourites here.