AHL roundup: Marlies have chance to make noise in playoffs

Toronto Marlies goaltender Antoine Bibeau (via @TorontoMarlies)

The Toronto Marlies have some unfinished business this season, and they have taken several steps to finish it.

Last season the Marlies piled up a team-record 54 regular-season wins. Their 114 points landed them third in American Hockey League history for one season.

Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe graduated William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Carrick 10 minutes west on Lake Shore Boulevard to Air Canada Centre to skate for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Keefe himself emerged as one of the next bright prospects in AHL head-coaching circles as well.

Putting six players into the NHL parent club’s lineup, finishing first overall in the regular season and gaining six weeks of experience in the Calder Cup Playoffs for prospects makes for a successful season by any measure for an AHL club.

However, last season ended rather quietly in the Eastern Conference final against the Hershey Bears. In a five-game series, Hershey put up 17 goals and ended the Marlies’ season.

But the Marlies, who sit third in the North Division at 65 points, have a chance to make some noise this spring. They could be on track for a playoff rematch with the Albany Devils, who pushed the Marlies to seven games in the second round last spring. The first-place Syracuse Crunch have a five-point lead on the Marlies entering play Friday. The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions qualify for the playoffs.

Lately, the Marlies have slowed down after what had been a torrid run. They have one win in their past five games following a five-game winning streak. Entering play with a road date at the Hartford Wolf Pack on Jan. 20, the Marlies owned a 15-19-2-1 mark. That night they put up seven goals and took off from there, going on to win 13 of their next 17 games.

Management has gone to work over the past two months to solidify Keefe’s lineup.

Back on Jan. 21, the Leafs claimed top-line AHL playmaker Seth Griffith on waivers from the Florida Panthers. The 24-year-old product of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights has since gone 4-20-24 in 22 games for the Marlies. He is a proven commodity at the AHL level, having finished second in league scoring last season with 24-53-77 for the Providence Bruins.

The Marlies’ lineup took a hit in February with the loss of centre Byron Froese, who led the AHL at one point with 24 goals in 48 games. A week after Froese was injured, he was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in the Brian Boyle deal. Tampa Bay subsequently assigned Froese to Syracuse. He has yet to dress as he gets back to health, but he will offer the Crunch a first-line centre upon his return.

First to arrive was New Jersey Devils centre Sergey Kalinin on Feb. 18. He cost the Marlies defenceman Viktor Loov and has managed only one point in six games, but he can play at centre or on the wing.

The Maple Leafs opted to move on from defenceman Frank Corrado and shipped him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eric Fehr trade that also brought back blue-liner Steve Oleksy. The 31-year-old Oleksy is the prototypical responsible stay-at-home defenceman who can add some snarl.

Next the Marlies sent centre Colin Smith to the San Antonio Rampage for scoring winger Mike Sislo. A major off-season signing by the Colorado Avalanche for the San Antonio line-up, the move did not pay off there. The Rampage are tied with Hartford for last in the AHL, and Sislo, who had hit 20 or more goals in the past three seasons with Albany, had slowed to six goals in 54 games.

That said Toronto management is quite familiar with what the 29-year-old Sislo is capable of from the Marlies’ many battles with Albany last season. If he can get back on track in Toronto, he offers Keefe a very dangerous offensive weapon.

The work did not stop for the Marlies even after the NHL trade deadline. The AHL provides an extra week for its teams to restructure rosters to prepare for the post-season.

Needing to fill that centre void created by Froese’s departure, the Marlies acquired veteran centre Cal O’Reilly on loan from the Rochester Americans on Wednesday. O’Reilly, 30, was 9-33-42 in 47 games while captaining Rochester. He has 144 NHL games to his name and has also reached 60-plus points in a season four times at the AHL level.

The next two weeks are an opportunity for the Marlies gain ground. Their next seven games are against opponents currently below the playoff line. Three of those contests are against the Binghamton Senators, who are second-to-last in the North Division while they also have a date with last-place Rochester in that stretch. That said, the AHL schedule offers plenty of trap games, and the Marlies dropped a 4-3 road decision at Rochester this past Wednesday.

The Marlies also have three consecutive games against Syracuse at the end of March and heading into the first week of April.

Plenty of work remains for the Marlies with five weeks to go in the regular season. But management has sent a message to the Marlies dressing room that it believes this is a team capable of playing into June this year.

Here is a look at the AHL affiliates of Canada’s other NHL outfits.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The St. John’s IceCaps (Montreal Canadiens) and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks) continue their battle for fourth place in the North Division. Each team emerged unscathed from the NHL trade deadline. St. John’s has a one-point lead on Utica, but the Comets have two games in hand.

The IceCaps wind down a six-game road trip that is 2-2-0-0 so far with games at Rochester and Syracuse this weekend. Utica did lose scoring leader Alexandre Grenier on recall to the Canucks, however, as they start a three-game weekend.

Binghamton (Ottawa Senators) had hovered on the very fringe of the North Division playoff line this season. But losses in seven of their past eight games doomed what were already faint playoff hopes.

At the NHL trade deadline, 31-year-old defenceman Mike Kostka was shipped to the Calgary Flames organization with Curtis Lazar. However, Ottawa did acquire 25-year-old defenceman Brandon Gormley from New Jersey for future considerations. Gormley, the 13th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, is now 25 and had been skating with Albany.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Leading the way are the Bakersfield Condors, who have rallied from inconsistency through much of the season to take over fourth place in the Pacific Division. Their six-game winning streak ended this Wednesday in a loss to the Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames), but the Condors have a three-point lead on the Heat. Also in the mix are the Tucson Roadrunners, who are four points behind the Condors.

Stockton has rebounded as well from a mid-season slide, winning five of its past six games. The teams meet Saturday at Bakersfield. After this weekend, the Heat play seven of their next eight games on the road.

The Condors and Heat each have seen roster changes lately. Stockton added Kostka but he remains out of the lineup. The Heat also lost rookie defenceman Rasmus Andersson on recall to Calgary on Friday.

Bakersfield made several moves. Leading scorer Taylor Beck (13-37-50 in 40 games) is now with Hartford after being traded to the New York Rangers. But that trade did bring forward Justin Fontaine from the Wolf Pack. Fontaine, who had spent the past three seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, has responded to the trade, going 1-3-4 in his first three games.

The Condors also acquired veteran forward Mark Olver on loan from Tucson for defenceman David Musil. Olver, 29, only managed 6-11-17 in 41 games with Tucson, but he brings 74 games of NHL experience to Bakersfield.

For the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets), call it a case of too little, too late. They assembled a four-game winning streak that ended last week, but remain eight points out of fourth place in the Central Division and yield games in hand to each of the three teams they are chasing.

With the Jets looking like a very long shot to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, do not be surprised to see Moose prospects Eric Comrie, Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic receive some late-season ice time with the NHL club.