While the Toronto Marlies are up 2-0 in the best of five series against the Utica Comets, and one game away from a first-round sweep–they haven’t outright dominated their first round opponent.
And that’s ok.
Frankly, It’s not the type of game they play, anyway.
“We’re not the type of team that overwhelms teams or dominates team’s, or anything like that,” said Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We just stay with it. [We] don’t give up a lot defensively. And when we do, our goaltending is great. But we stay with it, hang around and score at big [moments]. That’s sort of our recipe and we’ve got to stay with that.”
Thus far in what the Leafs affiliate hope to be a long Calder Cup Playoff run, the Marlies have stuck to their recipe for success. Yet, throughout the 137:48 minutes of action in this series, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Marlies.
In game one, the Marlies perseverance was tested. With 0:36 remaining in the third period, and with the Marlies up 2-1, the Comets scored a goal to send the game to overtime. While Utica’s last-minute goal may have silenced the fans at the Ricoh Coliseum, it certainly didn’t silence Toronto’s efforts.
Not one bit.
The team would pick themselves back up, battle-hard in OT and eventually, thanks to a goal from veteran forward Chris Mueller, defeat Utica 3-2.
“It’s kinda deflating,” said #Marlies forward Trevor Moore when asked about Utica tying up the game in the final minute of the 3rd period. “We have great leaders on this team that kept us motivated.” #Marlies pic.twitter.com/QXJBQPkeK5
— Jacob Stoller (@JLStoller) April 21, 2018
Then, in game two, after Utica tied the game up at 2 in the opening minute of the 3rd period, the Marlies weren’t going to let the game sit in a tie for long. 38 seconds after Utica’s tying goal, the Marlies regained the lead, thanks to a goal from veteran forward Colin Greening, which would go on to jumpstart the scoring parade, with the score ending at 5-2, in Toronto’s favour.
“Sometimes, things don’t go your way. If you don’t have the ability to just take it out of your mind and go out and worry about the next play and the next shift, things snowball and get out of control, it costs you games and series this time of the year,” said Keefe after the team’s 5-2 win in Game 2. “I really am proud of our guys with how we’ve dealt with that.”
Battle of the net minders
Expectedly, goaltending has been a key part of this series, for both team’s.
While the Marlies have outscored the Comets 8-4 through two games, it hasn’t been easy, as 22-year-old budding star, Thatcher Demko, has had the Marlies work cut out for them. Demko, the presumed goalie-of-the-future for the Vancouver Canucks, fills out his net quite nicely, sporting a 6’4 frame. He was an AHL all-star this past fall, and a big reason why the defensively-oriented Comets are in the playoffs, in the first place.
In terms of the Marlies goaltending, well, you probably already know.
Garret Sparks, the league’s best goaltender, has been in the crease for Toronto, and as usual, he’s put on a show. Both team’s, need their goaltenders to give them their A-game, night-in and night-out, even on back to back playoff games, and that’s not an easy task for a net minder.
“It’s a lot of pressure–to know that any mistake you make could be the different that night,” said Sparks after Game 2.
But going against Demko, one of the game’s best young goaltending prospects, has been an enjoyable experience for Sparks.
“I enjoy playing against Thatcher. I’d like to think he enjoys playing against me as well. It always seems to be a good game,” said Sparks. “When we’re not playing each other, we’re cheering for each other. Whenever we get to go head to head, it’s interesting.”
The special team’s battle
You could make the case that if the Marlies power play was performing better through these last two games, this series would be lopsided in Toronto’s favour. Utica has committed 14 minor penalties this series–the most of any team in this year’s playoffs.
On the ensuing power play’s, Toronto has gone 2/14, (14.3%).
But, it should be noted, Utica’s penalty kill unit is the second best in the league (behind Toronto’s), and they’ve done a great job at limiting Toronto’s opportunities on the man-advantage. Yet, even with Utica’s strong penalty killing ability, you’d think a team as talented as Toronto ought to be converting at a higher efficiency rate than they currently are.
“I think it’s our power play that needs to be a little bit better,” said Marlies forward Dmytro Timashov. “I don’t think it’s their PK.
“We just need to execute a little bit better. I think in the [offensive] zone, we’re good–it’s just [a lack of] execution.”
Engvall making some noise
Pierre Engvall had plenty to prove if he was going to be a fixture in Keefe’s playoff lineup.
Sure, the 21-year-old started his ATO with a bang, recording eight points in the team’s final nine regular season games, but come playoff time, Engvall wasn’t going to playing in the team’s top-six and he wasn’t going to be getting much power play time, either.
“The goals he’s scored are coming on the power play,” Keefe said back on March 28th. “At even strength, we’d like him to get inside and to use his body to protect the puck better.”
With a healthy lineup at Keefe’s helm, he bumped Engvall down to the team’s third line, alongside Frederik Gauthier and Colin Greening, for the start of the playoffs. The Leafs 7th round pick in 2014 has added some much-needed skill to compliment the team’s third line, and he’s improved on the little things, and his linemates have taken notice.
“He’s good at protecting the puck down low, like me and Greening. So we can cycle pretty well [together],” said Frederik Gauthier.
Keefe has been impressed with how Engvall responded to the role-change.
“It’s been nice to see. He’s on a line that forces him to [play hard on the puck]. Colin Greening is constantly talking to him, giving him advice and directions on things he needs to do. And then [Gauthier and Greening] drive the puck down the rink. They put you in the offensive zone. They force you to play down low in the offensive zone. They force you to forecheck. It’s changed the game a little bit for Pierre.”
Keefe would go on to mention that with the team reducing Engavll’s power-play usage, they were challenging the young forward to impact the game with less ice time.
It’s safe to say, he’s done that so far.
More reinforcements on the way?
If the Boston Bruins eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, the Marlies will be getting some reinforcements.
Kasperi Kapanen, Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson, who have all taken up big roles with the Maple Leafs, are AHL eligible, meaning they’ll be eligible to join the Marlies once the Leafs season concludes.
If Kapanen, Dermott and Johnsson do end up joining the Marlies Calder Cup run, here’s what the team’s depth chart would look like:
Marlies optimal lineup, with reinforcements.
Scratches: Engvall, Baun, Clune, Loverde, Nielsen.