Moments after his team punched their ticket to the second round with a commanding 3-1 win over the Rochester Americans in game three of the first round —sweeping the best of-five-series— Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe started off his post game press conference with a stick tap to his opponent.
“Hats off to them,” Keefe told reporters. “That’s a great hockey team that gave us all we could handle and then some.”
While he may have done so inadvertently, Keefe drew attention to just how incredible the Marlies’ first round performance was. They had defeated the favourited Americans— who received reinforcements from the Buffalo Sabres after their NHL affiliate missed the postseason–and they did it with a great deal of emphasis.
“In a series where we were probably the underdogs and not a lot of people expected us to come out of this series —especially with Buffalo finishing early and sending down some of their good players—we’re happy to be moving on, especially doing it in that type of fashion,” said forward Adam Brooks. “Obviously we think we have more [to give].
The series victory, and the way in which it transpired–came as quite a surprise and it’s not just because of who they were playing. In the weeks leading up to the 2018-2019 playoffs, goaltending and special teams —the Marlies’ backbone throughout the year — were major question marks. It seemed unlikely that the Marlies could advance, given the loss of key personnel like Michael Hutchinson, Sam Gagner, Carl Grundstrom along with Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen (who would later be re-assigned to the Marlies, once the Leafs were eliminated)
But once the playoffs got underway, the areas of the Marlies’ game that were the biggest question marks would morph into the biggest exclamation points of their first round upset.
Kasimir Kaskisuo went on to have the series of his life– posting a league-best .960 save percentage, 1.32 GAA in the first round–and the teams’ power play was a big part of their offensive attack, converting on 25% of their odd-man advantage chances.
However, the biggest takeaway from the series was not how the team responded collectively, but rather, how the Leafs’ most coveted prospects were the ones driving the bus for the Marlies.
“It’s what you’re here for—to develop those guys,” Keefe explained. “We’ve been fortunate to have lots of opportunity for young players to play a lot.”
And the Marlies’ young players have delivered, big time.
Take teenaged defenceman Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, the Marlies’ top pair for the majority of the series, as an example.
Keefe relied on the duo, heavily, throughout the three games against a Rochester team that finished the regular season with the fourth most goals in the regular season.
Sandin recorded four points in three contests–the most of any defenceman in the first round—while quarterbacking the teams’ first power play unit and eating up some of the most minutes of any blue-liner. Sandin even saw himself getting double-shifted from time-to-time, too.
As a result of Sandin’s play getting plenty of recognition throughout the year–which he rightfully deserved–some onlookers have underestimated Liljegren’s value. But after game three, a game where Liljegren appeared to eat up the most minutes of any Marlies defenceman, Keefe made a point to credit Liljegren.
“Timothy Liljegren was outstanding this entire series,” Keefe said after being asked about the contributions of Sandin, Jeremy Bracco and Adam Brooks. “There’s no easy matchup, no easy shifts against this hockey team. He’s playing a lot on the penalty kill, he helped us on the power play—he just played a lot of minutes. He was excellent. “
Bracco, the AHL’s second leading scorer, was a game-changer for the majority of the series, too.
Save for a lacklustre game three effort, Bracco was a dangerous offensive weapon for the Marlies, finishing with four points in three games. Bracco scored the overtime winner in game two and the way in which he gave Toronto a 2-0 series lead–making a move on a sprawling defender to cut to the middle of the ice and out wait the goaltender– was a testament to the pass-first wingers improved confidence as a shooter.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) April 21, 2019
Then there were guys like Adam Brooks–who scored all three goals in game three–that really took their games to the next level. After a subpar game two performance—and a subsequent chat about such with Keefe–Brooks was the Marlies’ best player during the series-clinching win.
“He was outstanding today, I just kept throwing him out the door because he was so good,” Keefe said. “The goals were one thing, but he just competed. He was on the right side of the puck the whole game. Those are some tough matchups there.”
Brooks elevated his game when the Marlies needed him most and that’s what you want to see in your prospects come playoff time. Playoffs, and being able to perform during them, is a different animal–but Brooks, who played in 20 games of playoff action during last springs Calder cup run, knew what it took to elevate his game.
“When you play more and you go through what we went through last year, getting that opportunity to go through the finals, to be a part of the lineup every day in the playoffs- I think you develop confidence,” Brooks said.
Prospects like Mac Hollowell–fresh off an OHL campaign that saw him nominated for the leagues best defenceman and overage player– fared well for the Marlies when called upon. Hollowell suited up for two games in the first round, skating on the teams’ third pair with Sandin, his former junior teammate, in game three.
“No pro experience [but still] steps in to play in this series at two games for us. I thought he was outstanding. there’s no easy shifts, no easy matchups. It’s difficult for those young guys to play.”
Other prospects like Dmytro Timashov–three points in as many games– and Pierre Engvall–with two points of his own–did a great deal to help their respective lines enter the offensive zone effectively.
Save for Chris Mueller–who leads the Marlies in scoring with five points in three games– the bulk of the Marlies’ first round success was a product of the contributions from some of the Leafs’ most coveted assets.
The organizations prospects are in the driver seat during this playoff run, which is exactly what the Leafs strive for–year-in and year out—and why they make such a concentrated effort, throughout the year, to ensure their AHL affiliate is taken care of.
“When you get those contributions [from prospects] and you can win— then all the better. Because I think that experience serves them well and now we get to play more games, so all the better,” Keefe said.