The Toronto Marlies reward for sweeping Bridgeport is a tough match-up against the Albany Devils in the second round.
Due to the American hockey league’s decision to plump for bracket’s instead of reseeding, the two best teams in the East will do battle in what really should have been a prospective Conference Final.
The Devils eliminated the Utica Comets three games to one in the first round, the first series victory by a New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate since the Albany River Rats reached the conference finals in 1998.
Since their inception in 2010, Albany had made the playoffs just twice before this season.
Toronto and Albany met six times during the regular season, the Marlies coming out on top with a 4-2-0-0 record
Not a whole deal can be gleaned from that series with both teams either not able to call upon a complete roster or fully up to speed. The first three encounter were played inside the opening three weeks of the season, while the latter three were contested by a Toronto team post trade deadline.
It’s been a record breaking season for the Devils franchise, setting new highs in wins (46), points (102) and consecutive home victories (11).
Rick Kowalsky is the man responsible for that success and has been the Head Coach of the Albany Devils since their inaugural season.
An Ontario native, Kowalsky was voted the AHL’s outstanding coach for 2015-16.
The 44 year old is the fourth youngest active coach in the league and began his career behind the bench with Norfolk in 2005.
Albany’s accomplishments so far this season have been achieved through a strong defensive structure.
The Devils owned the best defensive record in the East and second overall in the league.
Allowing just 167 goals in total, Albany were even more stingy on home ice.
A 1.76GAA at the Times Union Centre, was a huge reason they tied Toronto for a league best 27 victories in their own building.
Albany managed just 212 goals during the regular season, the second least in the Eastern Conference by a team that made the post-season.
They are somewhat reliant on an excellent power play which accounted for almost 26% of their goals (55). A third ranked penalty kill also chipped in with nine short-handed goals.
The Devils have received a ton of help from their parent club in the quest for a first Calder Cup win.
After failing to make the NHL post-season, New Jersey have sent seven players to Albany, including last year’s 6th overall pick.
On defense, 25yo Seth Helgeson and Damon Severson (21) boost the blue line corps.
Severson spent the whole season in the NHL, racking up 72 games and 21 points in the process.
The right-handed shot leads Albany with five assists of which three have come on the man advantage.
Helgeson split the season between the two leagues and is more experienced than his younger counterpart, this his third year as a professional after graduating at the University of Minnesota.
More crucially for Albany, much needed help offensively has arrived.
Leading goal scorer Mike Sislo (27) is back in the ranks and has already proved his worth with two goals and an assist in the Utica series. Sislo led the AHL in power play markers through the regular season with fourteen.
Blake Pietila may have only had a seven game stint in the NHL but doubtless the rookie has benefited from the experience. Inserted in game four of the Utica series, the left winger scored twice, one short-handed and the other an empty netter, and put up a pair of assists.
Reid Boucher spent 39 games with New Jersey, registering eight goals and 19 points.
The 22yo made hay against Utica, with three goals and as many assists, leading the team with six points. He was nigh on a PPG producer earlier in the season for Albany, finding the net 19 times in 34 outings.
Joseph Blandisi is yet another New Jersey rookie having a fine season, having recorded 17 points in 41 NHL games.
The Ontario native began the season in the AHL and proved productive with nine goals and 23 points in 27 outings. Blandisi recorded two points in the first round series decider and the game winner in the opener.
Last but not least is Pavel Zacha.
The 2015, 6th overall pick made his NHL debut for New Jersey at the end of the season and had an impact with two assists.
A native of the Czech Republic, Zacha has played in every game of the post-season for Albany so far, recording a goal and two assists. His lone marker came on the power play and the rookie has also received time on the penalty kill.
Veteran forward Jim O’Brien is also worthy of note.
The 27yo has 322 regular season games in the AHL under his belt and a further 35 post-season outings. He knows what it takes having won a Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators in 2011.
Four points so far for the centreman in this post-season campaign.
Although Albany have the extremely experienced Yann Danis on their roster, it’s highly likely that Scott Wedgwood will get the start between the pipes.
Wedgwood played for the entirety of the series with Utica, recording a 1.93GAA and 0.922 save percentage.
Yet another Ontario native on this roster, the 23yo only featured in 22 regular season games due to injury, but won 14 of those with a 0.933SV%.
He also made his NHL debut, playing on four occasions and recording highly impressive numbers.
If Toronto are to eliminate Albany, then they have to win the special teams battle, or at least match up.
The Devils certainly dominated the Comets in that department in the opening round with a 25% success rate with the man advantage. Not only did they also kill all fourteen penalties, Albany tallied two short-handed goals in the process.
Certainly staying disciplined will be key, something the Marlies failed to do during game three against Bridgeport and they almost paid the price.
Sheldon Keefe will have a raft of line-up decisions to make, beginning with who receives the start between the pipes.
Antoine Bibeau was pulled in the last game after allowing four goals on twelve shots.
In fairness the team deserted him and you could perhaps lay one of those four at his feet at a push.
It should not be forgotten that the Quebec native was excellent in game one, where he made 19 saves in the opening period.
Both shutouts by Toronto against Albany during the regular season were recorded by Bibeau and that’s perhaps another point to factor in.
Garret Sparks has yet to allow a goal but the Marlies have undoubtedly played their best hockey of the post-season in front of him so far.
Surprisingly there are no back-to-back’s in this series, so there is a possibility that Keefe may decide to ride a hot hand, should the game one starter impress.
The defense has been bolstered by the addition of 2015 draft pick Travis Dermott.
It’s highly unlikely the current Erie Otters blue liner will see any playing time soon, as there are no reported injuries plus Rinat Valiev and David Kolomatis were both healthy scratches for the last game.
One player that may find his way into the line-up is Andreas Johnson.
Johnson was part of a Frölunda team that won the Champions Hockey League and SHL Championship this year.
Despite only joining the Marlies on Friday, the left winger has much more going for him than other prospects added to the roster.
Johnson has two seasons playing in a men’s league (SHL) and at 21yo is older and physically better developed.
He has something to prove as one of the lower ranked prospects in the Toronto system and the Leafs stacking up lots of young talent and multiple draft picks.
Making an impression on this currently stacked Marlies team would be a first rung on the ladder for the Swedish forward.
Matt Frattin, Tobias Lindberg and Nikita Soshnikov were scratched for the last game of the Bridgeport series but you could expect the latter to reclaim his place from Colin Smith, assuming he’s healthy.
Albany have shown a propensity for strong starts to post-season games thus far, out-scoring Utica 6-2 in the first period and 7-1 in the second.
It’s vital that Toronto begin better than they did in the Bridgeport series, as Albany will be a far harder nut to crack should the Marlies fall behind.
All series from heronin revert to a best of seven and a 2-3-2 format begins at Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday.
As mentioned before, both teams have strong home records through the regular season and those first two games in Toronto could prove pivotal to the series.
Game 1 – Wed., May 4 – Albany at Toronto, 7:30
Game 2 – Fri., May 6 – Albany at Toronto, 7:30
Game 3 – Sun., May 8 – Toronto at Albany, 5:00
Game 4 – Tue., May 10 – Toronto at Albany, 7:00
*Game 5 – Thu., May 12 – Toronto at Albany, 7:00
*Game 6 – Sat., May 14 – Albany at Toronto, 3:00
*Game 7 – Mon., May 16 – Albany at Toronto, 7:30
All times Eastern.