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Halfway To A Big Upset

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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Take a good look at the upset the Toronto Marlies are halfway through authoring at the expense of the Manitoba Moose.

It’s a substantially different affair than last year when the Marlies advanced to the third round of the American League playoffs.

Yes, the Marlies have an awfully long way to go against a Moose team that finished first overall in the American League, 17 points ahead of Toronto. But the Marlies lead the series 2-1 and can take a chokehold on the thing with a win Tuesday at Ricoh Coliseum. Game 5 is also here, so the opportunity beckons if the club can eke out one more win at home.

Last year the Marlies got to the third round before petering out against the Chicago Wolves. That team was thick with veterans and while making some noise in the post-season is never unwelcome, it can be illusionary.

The goal, remember, is to better the parent team.

That’s why the limited success the Marlies have enjoyed against the Moose, the best regular season team the AHL has to offer, makes for such interesting viewing.

The Marlies, you might say, are doing it the right way. They have a shortage of playoff beards. Too many players are too young to grow one.

In the 2008 playoffs, coach Greg Gilbert knew goalie Justin Pogge wasn’t ready and turned instead to thirty-year-old Scott Clemmensen. This time, it has been Pogge’s series to win and he has responded with splendid performances in Games 1 and 3. The 22-year-old has surrendered five goals in three games for a 1.66 goals against average.

Pogge’s ability to resurrect his stock after being torched with the Leafs reinforces the wisdom of using him sparingly in last year’s post-season.

The Marlies left a handful of veterans up front, the injured Kris Newbury and Bates Battaglia come to mind, but otherwise the roster has been given over to youth.

Last year’s the Marlies used a defence with 35-year-old Bryan Muir, 30-year-old Derrick Walser and 28-year-olds Colin Murphy and Andy Wozniewski. All four are gone.

Instead, the defence is led by Phil Oreskovic, just 22, Jaime Sifers, 26 and 22-year-old Anton Stralman. Of that key trio, only Sifers was here last year.

It’s is much the same story up front. Gone are David Ling, 33 and 28-year-old Colin Murphy. In their stead are 26-year-old Tim Stapleton, 5-year-old Andre Deveaux, and 21-year-old Jiri Tlusty. Jeremy Williams is returning but he is just 25.

All those young players saw time in the NHL this season.

More to the point, the player who may one day be remembered as the best prospect on the club is not playing. Smooth-skating Viktor Stalberg put aside his fourth year at the University of Vermont and has been practicing with the Marlies.

You could write a book on the best way for an AHL team to approach the playoffs. Ideally you have a core of young, talented players who assume the leadership and then skip off to the parent NHL team the following season. That wasn’t an option last year.

It’s a model the club has moved to emulate this season.

There will be no consolation, of course, for missing the NHL playoffs. Still, Leafs officials should be delighted with what they are seeing on the farm.
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