As you’re reading this, the Toronto Marlies will likely still be in the midst of an 11 AM game against the St. John’s IceCaps, played in front of thousands of screaming school children. Par for the course; it’s the last of three school day games that the team has to play this year.
It’s also an important game for the team, though. The North Division is, quite frankly, a dogfight, and with six games to go and four playoff spots to be earned, there’s still only an eight point gap between leading the gang and being one spot out of the picture. The standings, heading into today, look like this.
Back in January, I wrote a post about how the Marlies probably weren’t as bad as the standings showed, as they had been sitting in 27th in the entire league at that point. They were 15-19-2-1 at the time (0.446), and are 24-7-2-0 since (0.758). We’ll talk more about how they got to this point in a later post, but for now, they’re here, atop the table. But there’s still theoretical room for them to drop out; Utica and Albany could still get to 87 points, St. John’s to 88, and Syracuse to 93.
With that in mind, it’ll take a 2-3-1 record to secure a spot. Maybe less with the right games won; Toronto winning in regulation today against the IceCaps would allow for 1-4-0 the rest of the way. But winning the division might be a different story. Here’s the strength of schedule of all the teams remaining in the hunt:
Toronto faces the strongest array of teams, with three games against the IceCaps, one against Utica, one against the incredibly strong Hershey Bears (0.613), and while they have one game against Rochester, the Amerks have been a tough opponent for the Blue and White this year.
Syracuse, their most important opponent right now for the sake of winning the division, gets it a bit easier: 4th and 5th place Utica and Albany are their strongest opponents, taking them on twice each, and they also have two games against 29th-place Binghamton.
The Crunch have also shied away from making a big push of late though, winning just four of their last 10 games; respectable enough with an additional three non-regulation losses, but not enough to make a big climb. The Marlies are perhaps overly hot, with wins in 9 of their last 10, but there’s at least a sense of momentum.
Realistically, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Marlies are in. There are too many inter-competition games between these five teams over the next two weeks for none of the four to drop the required points to make it, even if the Marlies struggle. But as the hottest team in the division, with the best goal differential, the best shot ratio, and a mostly healthy and active roster, I wouldn’t bet against them holding on and securing the top seed. Given where they were three months ago, that would be extremely impressive.