With a full roster intact, the Marlies enter the postseason as strong favorites to win the championship. Despite a seemingly never-ending parade of recalls to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs, the Marlies stormed through the regular season on their way to a 54-16-5-1 record and 114 points, good for a .750 points percentage and tying them for the third-best record in AHL history.
The Marlies are pursuing the first Calder Cup championship for a Maple Leafs AHL affiliate since 1982. Awaiting them are the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who became the final Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff berth after fending off the Hartford Wolf Pack's late-season charge. The best-of-5 series starts at Bridgeport on Saturday for the first two games before the final three games of the series at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.
Bridgeport will face an opponent that finished first in goals per game (3.87), fourth in goals-against (2.51) and shots per game (32.5) as well as led the league in road wins (27) and tied for the League lead in home wins (27). Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe will have a lineup that spent much of the final six weeks of the season with the Maple Leafs.
Leading the way on the blue line are veterans T.J. Brennan and captain Andrew Campbell. Brennan finished third in league scoring with 68 points (25 goals, 43 assists), earning the Eddie Shore Award as the league's top defenseman for the second time in three seasons. Mobile blueliner Connor Carrick adds a further offensive dimension to Keefe's arsenal, and reliable prospects Justin Holl, Stuart Percy and Rinat Valiev round out a stout top-six.
Up front, the dynamic William Nylander leads the Toronto attack. An injury sustained at the World Junior Championship and time with the Maple Leafs limited Nylander to 37 AHL games, but he finished with 18 goals and 45 points. Center Mark Arcobello had 25 goals in 49 games. Center Colin Smith had seven goals in 23 games after a late-season trade from the San Antonio Rampage.
Perhaps the Marlies' greatest strength is their offensive depth. Brendan Leipsic (20 goals), Nikita Soshnikov (18), Josh Leivo (17) and Sam Carrick (16) provided plenty of offense along with, Connor Brown, Matt Frattin, Zach Hyman and rookies Kasperi Kapanen and Tobias Lindberg.
Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks went 14-4-3 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage and Antoine Bibeau won 28 of his 40 games to go with his 2.70 GAA and .909 save percentage.
However, Ontario is a carbon-copy of their parent Los Angeles Kings, using exceptional defensive structure to smother opponents and relying on balanced goal-scoring. Ontario's league-leading 2.03 goals-against per game finished as the sixth-best in AHL history, and its penalty kill (88.7 percent) led the league.
Ontario will play the San Jose Barracuda in the League's first-ever all-California playoff matchup. The Barracuda needed the final day of the season to earn a trip to the playoffs, using a 6-0 home shutout of the Stockton Heat this past Sunday to do so.
Ontario brings a blue line that can match Toronto's defense. Steady captain Vincent LoVerde anchors a group that includes NHL veteran Jeff Schultz and the very physical Kurtis MacDermid. Prospect Kevin Gravel is with the Kings, but he is eligible to rejoin the Ontario lineup.
Ontario veteran NHL goaltender Peter Budaj led the AHL in games (60), minutes (3,574), wins (42), GAA (1.75), save percentage (.932) and shutouts (nine). He won the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as the league's top goaltender and first-team all-star honors.
Ontario power forward Michael Mersch had 24 goals in 52 games and Sean Backman (21 goals), Justin Auger (19 goals) and Nic Dowd (48 points) were part of a well-rounded group of forwards.
The Eastern Conference's Albany Devils finished second in the AHL with 102 points and are reminiscent of the parent New Jersey Devils 1995 Stanley Cup-winning team. Albany blended strong defensive play (2.20 goals-against per game, second-best in the AHL) with excellent special team play. Albany's penalty kill finished third overall, and its power play was eighth-best. The Devils will take on the Utica Comets.
Albany will have forward Pavel Zacha, the sixth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft along with defenseman Damon Severson. Forwards Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi have returned from New Jersey as well.
Propelled by rookie Frank Vatrano and his league-leading 36 goals, the Providence can match Toronto's offense. Seth Griffith finished second in league scoring with 77 points (24 goals and a league-leading 53 assists) in 57 games. Alexander Khokhlachev ranked fourth with 68 points (23 goals, 45 assists) and rookie Austin Czarnik tied for seventh at 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists). Providence and its league-best power play (22.6 percent) play the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after winning its final five games of the regular season.
AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque and the Hershey Bears will play Portland Pirates. Bourque's 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists) in 72 games earned him the Les Cunningham Award as most valuable player and the scoring title was the second of his AHL career. The Bears and Portland Pirates start their series Friday.
Perhaps the AHL's biggest dark horse, the Lake Erie Monsters finished the regular season with eight wins in their final 10 games. Lake Erie has goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, defensemen Justin Falk and Dean Kukan back from the parent Columbus Blue Jackets as well as forwards Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand for a first-round series with the Rockford IceHogs.
Five consecutive losses to end the season pushed the Grand Rapids Griffins down to fourth in the Central Division and set them up for a first-round date with the Milwaukee Admirals. A team bearing a strong resemblance to the parent Nashville Predators with rookie goaltender Juuse Saros and a well-balanced group of defensemen. Milwaukee had 101 points, and its 48 wins were second-most in the league. The Milwaukee power play was second-best, and its penalty kill landed in seventh place.
Grand Rapids survived a 2-8-0-1 start, using 13 and 15-game winning streaks to carry them through the grueling Central Division.
The San Diego Gulls will have home-ice advantage against the Texas Stars. The Stars employ a wide-open style that carried them to second in the league in goals per game (3.64) while allowing 3.24 goals per game, 25th in the AHL. Rookie Brandon Montour bested all rookie defensemen with 57 points (12 goals, 45 assists) for San Diego.
If the San Diego can get past Texas, they would play Ontario.
Two Eastern Conference teams have added players with first-round pedigrees for their playoff runs. Left wing Michael Dal Colle, the fifth pick in the 2014 Draft, joined Bridgeport last week. Dal Colle, 19, had 35 goals in 60 games in the Ontario Hockey League.
Left wing Lawson Crouse went to Portland. Crouse, 18, wrapped up his OHL season with 23 goals in 49 games after the Florida Panthers chose him 11th in the 2015 Draft.
Providence forward Danton Heinen made his pro debut with two assists in his first two games. He signed with the Boston Bruins after a 48-point season with the University of Denver.
Zacha, San Antonio's Mikko Rantanen and Lake Erie defenseman Zach Werenski are top-10 picks from 2015 skating in the AHL as well. Right wing Mitch Marner of the OHL's London Knights, the fourth pick in 2015, will be eligible to join the Marlies if the Knights are eliminated from the OHL playoffs. He has 24 points in 10 playoff games after a 116-point season.
BUSINESS IS GOOD
The AHL excelled off the ice as well.
Pushed by its move to the West Coast, the AHL set two attendance records. Its average of 5,982 per game established a new league-high, as did a total attendance of 6,693,526. In all, attendance increased 8.6 percent from last season.
The AHL named Rockford goaltender Mac Carruth its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending this past Sunday. With veteran Michael Leighton still with the Chicago Blackhawks, Carruth went 3-0-0 with a 0.67 GAA and .975 save percentage.
Vatrano and Rantanen became the first co-winners of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL's top rookie since 1976. Vatrano's 36 goals came in 36 games. Rantanen, 19, had 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) in 52 games after the Colorado Avalanche selected him 10th in the 2015 draft.
San Jose's Ryan Carpenter won the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for community and charity work.
AROUND THE AHL
Binghamton coach Luke Richardson will not return after four seasons. Binghamton reached the playoffs twice during Richardson's stint…A five-game losing streak to end the season doomed Charlotte's playoff chances, though they survived until San Jose's victory on the last day of the season. Charlotte brought in playmaking forward Andrew Miller from Bakersfield at the AHL trade deadline, but an injury held him to 11 games. Another addition, rookie winger Valentin Zykov, missed all but two games after being acquired from Ontario in an NHL trade…Veteran center T.J. Hensick, traded by Charlotte to Utica for center Blair Jones, thrived with the Comets and had 15 points in 19 games…The Chicago Blackhawks extended the contract of Rockford coach Ted Dent through the 2018-19 season.