The task this time for the Toronto Marlies is to improve on their trip to the AHL’s Eastern Conference final last season with another lengthy spring.
As the Calder Cup playoffs get underway, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate is among the favourites to assemble a deep run. The 16-team tournament started with two games Thursday, including a 3-0 Marlies road loss to the Albany Devils. The teams play Game 2 on Saturday.
All first-round series are a best-of-five format in the AHL. For the Marlies, that means starting in Albany before the series finishes in Toronto with as many as three games.
Last season saw the Marlies advance to the third round after a team-record 114-point season. However, they ran into the Hershey Bears, who finished them off in five games.
This time around, the Marlies finished 42-29-5, good for second place in the North Division and one point behind the Syracuse Crunch. In the first round, the Marlies are facing the Devils in a rematch of last year’s second-round series, which the Marlies won in seven games.
While the Marlies might lack some of the star prospect shine that they had last year with the likes of William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen now with the Maple Leafs, this is once again a very deep roster.
In net, Garret Sparks leads the way for head coach Sheldon Keefe after posting a sparkling .922 save percentage this season.
Up front, leading scorer Kerby Rychel (19-33-52) is among the headliners in a deep group of forwards that also includes Seth Griffith, Andreas Johnson, Brendan Leipsic, and Cal O’Reilly. Rychel won a Calder Cup last year with the Cleveland Monsters, who failed to make the postseason this year.
A significant portion of the Toronto roster has been through the playoff grind, but the Marlies will be up against an Albany team that has strengthened itself for the postseason. The parent New Jersey Devils sent defenceman Steven Santini to Albany along with forwards Joe Blandisi, Blake Coleman, Ben Thomson, and Miles Wood down to Albany, which provides a boost of NHL-experience to the AHL Devils.
The Devils will have to count on young goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Ken Appleby to fend off one of the best offences in the AHL. Blackwood excelled in Game 1 on Thursday, shutting out the Marlies with a 27-save performance that earned him the first-star of the game.
After Game 2 on Saturday, the teams are off until next Wednesday when Game 3 goes at Ricoh Coliseum.
ST. JOHN’S ICECAPS
The IceCaps will face a difficult challenge against the Syracuse Crunch in a series that starts Friday in St. John’s.
Syracuse sputtered its way through much of the second half after enduring a never-ending parade of player movement to and from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
However, the Lightning has loaded up the Crunch for the postseason. Forwards Michael Bournival, Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde, and Joel Vermin all come back after finishing the season in the NHL. The Crunch blue line also picked up defenceman Jake Dotchin, who can add a physical presence.
The 36-30-8-2 IceCaps have had their share of defensive misadventures for much of the season and needed until the final day of the regular season to qualify for the postseason.
But St. John’s can offer up some of its own weapons. Second-team AHL All-Star Chris Terry went 30-38-68 in 58 AHL games this season. Charles Hudon, a 22-year-old prospect, served up 27 goals of his own. Rookie goaltender Charles Lindgren and veteran Yann Danis provide a quality tandem for head coach Sylvain Lefebvre.
The Canadiens also sent defenceman Noah Juulsen to the IceCaps on Thursday. A 2015 first-round pick by Montreal, Juulsen spent this season in the Western Hockey League, going 12-22-34 in 49 regular-season games for the Everett Silvertips.
The IceCaps host Game 2 on Saturday before the series moves to Syracuse for Game 3 next Wednesday. This weekend could be the final home games for the IceCaps in St. John’s. Next season they will relocate to Laval, Que. to play as the Laval Rocket.
The Heat would test the patience of even a Lady Byng Trophy winner.
Their ornery, feisty style figures to irritate the archrival San Jose Barracuda as their playoff series proceeds.
But the Heat will face a difficult challenge against the Western Conference champion Barracuda. The San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate may be the most well-constructed team in the entire league and do not have any significant weaknesses. Perhaps the best puck-possession team in the AHL, the Barracuda play modern-day NHL-style hockey.
Stuck in a logjam of teams in the Pacific Division for much of the season, the Heat broke loose by winning 14 of their final 19 games down the stretch.
Calgary has assigned goaltender Jon Gillies to the Heat; the Flames’ elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs ends any possibility of player recalls hampering Stockton this spring.
Getting Gillies back will be a big boost for the Heat. This season, the 23-year-old posted a 18-14-1 record with a 2.93 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
Rookie Mark Jankowski’s 27 goals and 56 points lead the way offensively for the Heat.
This should be an interesting clash of styles – the old-time AHL abrasiveness that the Heat bring versus the modern-day NHL game. Even if the Barracuda advance, they would be well-served to end this series quickly. A long series with the Heat could exact a significant physical toll.
The AHL Senators wrapped up its final season in New York State with a 28-44-4 record. That mark landed them second-to-last in the Eastern Conference and 29th in the AHL. Binghamton has sat out the playoffs four times in the past six seasons since winning the Calder Cup in 2011. Before that championship season, they had missed five consecutive times.
Next season Ottawa will place its AHL affiliate in Belleville, Ont., while Binghamton will become the new home of New Jersey’s AHL affiliate.
Stockton reaching the postseason came at the expense of Edmonton’s Bakersfield. The Condors finished 33-29-6, five points behind Stockton. They missed the playoffs for the second season in a row.
A hot stretch of 12 wins in 16 games had put the Condors back into playoff contention but back-to-back losses to Western Conference also-rans San Antonio and Texas in the final 10 days of the season helped to doom their playoff chances.
Before this two-year drought, Edmonton’s AHL prospects had qualified for the postseason for five consecutive seasons. Included in that stretch were back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference final in 2012 and 2013.
A few Condors will have their seasons extended. Edmonton recalled netminder Nick Ellis along with forwards Joey LaLeggia and team scoring leader Anton Lander (25-30-55 in 42 games). Mark Fayne, Jordan Oesterle, and Griffin Reinhart are also headed to Edmonton from the Bakersfield blue line. Rookie forward Jesse Puljujarvi was assigned to the Finnish national team for the IIHF World Championship next month.
Vancouver’s Utica also faded down the stretch and failed to reach the postseason after having qualified for the past two seasons. The Comets reached the Calder Cup final in 2015 and posted a 35-32-9 record this season. Four losses in their final five games halted the Comets’ playoff bid.
Comets head coach Travis Green is considered one of the top candidates out of the AHL for potential NHL duty next season. He held Utica in contention until the final week of the regular season despite a roster that was ravaged by recalls to Vancouver. Forwards Jayson Megna and Brendan Gaunce were limited to four AHL games, as was rookie blueliner Troy Stecher. Forward Michael Chaput stuck with the Canucks and only spent 10 games with Utica.
Jets-affiliate Manitoba wrapped up another season out of the playoff mix. They finished third from the bottom of the Western Conference with a 29-37-10 mark, a seven-point improvement from last season. In 2015-16, they posted 50 losses.
Workhorse goaltender Eric Comrie was selected to represent Canada at the World Championship. The second-year pro was 19-26-2 in 51 games to go with his 2.96 GAA and .906 save percentage. The 2013 second-round selection by Winnipeg also made his NHL debut on April 6.