Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
The Toronto Marlies have dug themselves into a hole that a lot of people may not have predicted they would be in at the start of the playoffs.
Down 2-1 in their second-round series against the Albany Devils, the Marlies will need to adjust to their opponents style of play and successfully counter-attack in order to come out of the series on top. Though Toronto has come within a goal in both of their losses, Albany has picked apart the Marlies’ defensive structure and pushed the team to their limit. Albany has outshot Toronto 111-92 through 3 games, but scoring is tied in the series at 8 goals a piece. The past three games have been a bloodbath, and the intensity should only increase heading into game four on Tuesday.
Individual mistakes have greater consequences in the playoffs, and even more so in a series such as this one. Albany is a strong team; they are positionally sound and quick to the puck. Now more than ever, Toronto will need to tighten up defensively while putting on a strong push offensively. The Marlies will need to put their losses behind them, correct their past mistakes and move forward in the series.
So… exactly what have their past mistakes been, and how do they correct them?
Though a lack of scoring hasn’t particularly been an issue, one still has to out-score their opponent in order to win games. Game two of the series tallied five goals for the Marlies, but in actuality, they combined to score 3 goals in their two losses. Scoring isn’t as simple as we make it out to be, so how exactly can they score on the defensively-sound Albany Devils?
Take a look at this map demonstrating the areas in which the Marlies’ 8 goals have been scored from:
Though only 3 of these goals have come from in front of the net, several others have come as a result of traffic or screens in front of Albany’s Scott Wedgewood. An aggressive and prevalent net-front presence has been crucial to the Marlies goalscoring tactics this round, and it will be a key component moving forward. I’m looking at you, Zach Hyman.
The goals don’t have to be pretty- garbage goals are seemingly one of the only ways to put a puck past Wedgewood. If the Marlies can beat Albany to the puck around the crease, a strong net-front presence will allow them to take control of the play and bury any rebounds. These types of goals account for 2 of the Marlies’ 8 goals against the Devils, and another three resulting from a strong screen in front. An example this type of scoring comes in game two on a goal from Colin Smith:
Smith (#37) is left open in the middle of the ice and takes advantage by burying the rebound. Ben Smith (#21) successfully ties up the Albany defenseman, leaving C. Smith room to score.
As previously mentioned, Scott Wedgewood does not have very many weaknesses. With a 0.918 SV% through the playoffs, Wedgewood has been solid in net for the Devils. Though not particularly a weakness, Wedgewood has let in 2 goals on his top glove side from known-snipers William Nylander and TJ Brennan. Although shooting from a distance may not be the most effective option, players acting as screens in front weaken Wedgewood’s vision and shooting high glove side is certainly another way to net a few goals moving forward.
The Marlies have also struggled to score on the man advantage against the AHL’s best playoff penalty kill. Toronto has gone 1 for 16 on the power play against the Devils, averaging to a 6.25PP%. That is unacceptable for a team who was heavily favored to win the Calder Cup heading into the playoffs. Applying a strong net-front presence, as well as precise shooting, may help the Marlies solve the air-tight Devils’ penalty kill.
Toronto’s defensive structure emphasizes man-on-man coverage, and though this system can be effective, the Devils have found a way to break through a Marlies defense that seemed sound heading into the series. Let us look at the Devils’ goal map from games one through three:
Three goals have come from the top half of the defensive zone, each being a variant type of shot. Another resulted from a 2-on-1 play. These are not the types of goals I’m referencing; the other four goals have resulted from Albany drawing attention towards the puck carrier and away from an open man. The open man is then able to bury the puck via a rebound or shot, and can do this easily because of the lack of defensive coverage. In their own zone, the Marlies can become very focused on covering their assignments. The Devils take advantage of the brief moment in time in which the Toronto defenders glance towards the puck carrier, and the Albany forwards often capitalize on these moments. Take a look at Dan Kelly’s (#8) goal from game two:
Mike Sislo (#19) of the Devils carries the puck into the zone and temporarily draws the attention of two Marlies: Fredrick Gauthier (#23) and Stuart Percy (#10). Albany’s Joseph Blandisi (#9) moves off the blue line, drawing Toronto’s Rich Clune (#17) towards the centre of the ice. This leaves the top of the Devils’ offensive zone wide open for Kelly, who capitalizes on a slapshot from the point. The Toronto players were momentarily occupied in searching for their defensive assignments, and because of this, Kelly was able to capitalize on the scoring opportunity as the open man on the play.
Looking ahead in both the series and the playoffs, Toronto may need to make some adjustments in their execution. A few corrections will be necessary; careful shooting, a greater net-front presence, a more effective power play and better, more detailed defensive coverage will be important moving forward.
Not to worry, though. Legend has it, Jeff Veillette once said:
“The playoffs are a crapshoot. A team being down by 1 game in the biggest goliath-vs-goliath series the league will [see] this year isn’t a wake-up call; it’s a less than ideal situation, but nobody is losing sleep.”
He’s right, guys.