Can anyone stop the Toronto Marlies?
After a 114-point season, the third-best in American Hockey League history, the Marlies have picked up where they left off in the regular season. They took the first two games of their Calder Cup playoff first-round series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers this weekend. After a four-day break, they resume the series in Toronto on Thursday with Bridgeport facing elimination in the best-of-five series.
Toronto struggled early in Game 1 against the hard-working, scrappy Bridgeport team. But two defensive breakdowns late in the second period set up goals by Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Brown 16 seconds apart, sending the visiting Marlies on their way to a 4-1 win.
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe divided goaltending duties between Game 1 starter Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks in Game 2. Sparks, whose lone AHL playoff experience was one game in 2013, had a 31-save shutout in a 3-0 win on Sunday. Brown added two more goals.
Slowing down Mark Arcobello and Brendan Leipsic still was not enough for Bridgeport.
Facing Toronto, the League's top offensive team with 3.87 goals per game in the regular season, means a constant wave of pressure shift after shift. Brown tied for eighth on the team with 11 goals in an injury-plagued season. But Arcobello (tied for the team lead with 25 goals) and Leipsic (20 goals) are among the Marlies yet to score, and it seems only a matter of time before they start to contribute.
Top defensive prospect Connor Carrick arrived from the Hershey Bears at the NHL Trade Deadline further solidifying a blue line that includes T.J. Brennan, who tied Arcobello with 25 goals and won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's best defenseman for the second time in the past three seasons.
After a late-season stint with the Maple Leafs, Carrick has been the Marlies' best defenseman through the first two games. Brennan, Carrick and captain Andrew Campbell, plus prospects Stuart Percy, Rinat Valiev and Justin Holl give Keefe an excellent blue line. Should it falter, he still has Viktor Loov and the veteran David Kolomatis in reserve.
Keefe's biggest problem might end up being trying to find ice time for each of his 26 players.
A testament to the Marlies depth is the players that Keefe has scratched in the first two games. Rookie Kasperi Kapanen, who spent time with the Maple Leafs this season, was a scratch in Game 1. Kapanen returned to dress for Game 2, pushing talented rookie Tobias Lindberg out of the lineup.
Veteran Matt Frattin scored 13 goals and had 10 goals in 13 playoff games for the Marlies in 2012 but was a healthy scratch in each of the first two games. Colin Smith arrived from the San Antonio Rampage in a February trade and had 22 points in 23 games but is out of the lineup.
A big obstacle for Toronto is out of the way after the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took care of the Providence Bruins, a team that had given Toronto some late-season trouble. Despite Providence tying for fourth-best in the AHL at 3.13 goals per game and receiving roster reinforcements from the Boston Bruins, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rookie goaltender Casey DeSmith took over the series and defeated Providence in three consecutive overtime games.
The Hershey Bears and Portland Pirates are tied 1-1; the Albany Devils have a 2-0 lead on the Utica Comets.
In the Central Division, the Lake Erie Monsters swept the Rockford IceHogs, and the Grand Rapids Griffins lead the division-winning Milwaukee Admirals 2-0.
The Ontario Reign, who won the Calder Cup last season when the franchise was in Manchester, are tied with the San Jose Barracuda (1-1). The Texas Stars evened their series with the San Diego Gulls heading back to California at 1-1.
AROUND THE AHL
Manitoba Moose coach Keith McCambridge will not return after the Winnipeg Jets did not renew his contract. McCambridge is the second AHL coaching change in the past week, joining Luke Richardson of the Binghamton Senators. …San Antonio center Mikko Rantanen, the co-winner of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award with Frank Vatrano as the AHL's top rookie, will represent Finland at the World Championship in Russia. His teammate Calvin Pickard will be with Canada after playing 20 games with the Colorado Avalanche. …The end of the Los Angeles Kings' season means Ontario has a key piece of its blue line back in Kevin Gravel. …Grand Rapids added forward Evgeny Svechnikov, the 19th pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. He had 79 points (32 goals, 47 assists) in 50 games for Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Defenseman Joe Hicketts, who played for Canada at the World Junior Championship, also joined Grand Rapids from Victoria of the Western Hockey League.