AHL roundup: Marlies face stiff challenge in second round vs. Crunch

Marlies forward Frederik Gauthier (Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Next up for the Toronto Marlies is the Syracuse Crunch as the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs move on to the second round.

The Marlies start the best-of-seven series with a pair of games at Syracuse beginning on Friday night. Game 2 goes Saturday night. Toronto faces an opponent that was heavily fortified by the parent Tampa Bay Lightning at the conclusion of the NHL’s regular season.

Toronto advanced to the second round after taking out the Albany Devils in four games in their best-of-five first-round series (all AHL first-round series are best-of-five). Syracuse finished off the St. John’s IceCaps in four games, as well. Each team has been off since last Friday.

Toronto defeated Syracuse five times in the eight-game regular-season series. However, the Crunch earned home ice and captured the North Division title from the Marlies by just one point.

The Marlies will host Games 3 and 4 at Ricoh Coliseum next Tuesday and Wednesday. The series would resume a week from Saturday with Game 5 at Syracuse. If necessary, the Marlies would host Game 6 on May 15 while Syracuse would stage Game 7 on May 17.

Playing in May is nothing new for the Marlies, who have advanced to at least the second round in five of the past six seasons; Toronto was a Calder Cup finalist in 2012. Last season, the Marlies’ 114-point regular season ended in the Eastern Conference final against the Hershey Bears.

If the Marlies can move past Syracuse, a rematch with Hershey could be in the offing. Hershey starts its second-round series Saturday against the Providence Bruins.

A path through the Eastern Conference and into the Calder Cup final will not be easy, but it will be missing two of the top threats in a deep field of challengers to a potentially long run by the Marlies. The regular-season champion Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (107 points) and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (101 points) each were eliminated in the first round.

For now, however, the Marlies will continue to live without goaltender Garret Sparks, who exited Game 2 at Albany with an undisclosed injury and has not played since. Head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed Friday that he will dress the same lineup that finished the series against Albany, according to the Marlies website.

That means that goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo will continue to control the Toronto net. He went 2-0 against Albany, leading the AHL with both a 0.96 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage. Antoine Bibeau will continue to back up the second-year Finnish pro.

Forward Kasperi Kapanen, who returned from the Toronto Maple Leafs after their departure from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will also play. He had left Game 5 against Albany. He has chipped in two assists in two AHL playoff games this spring.

Marlies defenceman Justin Holl had eight goals and 19 points in 72 regular-season games with the Marlies, but has blossomed in the playoffs. He has a goal and six points in the post-season, and finished the first-round series with the game-winning goal in triple overtime in Game 4.

Forward Kerby Rychel, who led the Marlies in the regular season with 19-33-52, collected 1-2-3 in the first round. He brings the experience of a deep playoff run having won the Calder Cup last season with the Lake Erie Monsters as a then-Columbus Blue Jackets prospect.

Frederik Gauthier heads all Marlies forwards in playoff scoring with 1-3-4, and rookie defenceman Travis Dermott was 1-3-4 in the first round. Colin Greening, Andreas Johnson, and Brendan Leipsic provide more offence. The Marlies will need Seth Griffith and Cal O’Reilly to produce more offensively against Syracuse. Each player was limited to one assist by Albany.

But Syracuse will present a wide array of offensive weapons of its own in the series, including former Marlies centre Byron Froese. Tampa Bay acquired him from the Leafs on Feb. 27 in the Brian Boyle trade. Froese led the AHL in goals at one point before the trade and posted 24 tallies in 48 games for the Marlies in the regular season. He went 1-1-2 in four first-round games.

Before facing St. John’s, the Crunch loaded up on help from Tampa Bay. Forwards Michael Bournival, Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde and Joel Vermin all headed to the Crunch, as did physical blue-liner Jake Dotchin.

The Crunch have a four-way tie at four points apiece for the team scoring lead between captain and NHL veteran Erik Condra, Tye McGinn, Matthew Peca and Matt Taormina. The Syracuse blue line is headlined by Taormina, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenceman this season.

Leading the way in net for the Crunch will be well-travelled veteran Mike McKenna. Acquired by the Lightning from the Florida Panthers at the NHL trade deadline for prospect Adam Wilcox, McKenna struggled at times for Syracuse after the trade.

However, he has delivered for the Crunch in the post-season and provided head coach Benoit Groulx with the sort of goaltending that Syracuse had struggled to locate in a regular season punctuated by constant roster turnover. McKenna put up a 1.77 GAA to go with his .932 save percentage.

"I think the biggest challenge is just the speed and skill they have," Keefe told the Marlies website. "We've got to take care of the puck."

ELSEWHERE

The Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) nearly took out the Western Conference regular-season champion San Jose Barracuda in their first-round series.

At the very least, the Heat put a significant scare into their Pacific Division arch-rival, who will go on to face the San Diego Gulls in the second round. San Jose needed a third-period comeback to force overtime in Game 5 on Tuesday before finally putting away the stubborn Heat to end the series.

Stockton goaltending kept Game 5 close as the Barracuda threatened to blow the game open. Heat netminder Jon Gillies took over for David Rittich before the second period and went on to turn aside 37 of 39 shots in the loss. Heat forwards Mark Jankowski and Linden Vey tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with five points apiece. Vey had four goals in the series.

The IceCaps’ first-round ouster marked the end of the AHL in Newfoundland, at least for now. The AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens will relocate to Laval, Que., next season. St. John’s had hosted the AHL since 2011 as well as a 14-season stint as the AHL affiliate of the Maple Leafs between 1991 and 2005.

IceCaps netminder Charlie Lindgren excelled in the post-season, posting a .922 save percentage to go with his 2.21 GAA.