Marlies rolling through stiff competition

Photo: Christian Bonin

by Patrick Williams

There has been nothing passive about the Toronto Marlies through two-plus rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring.

But it has been plenty stifling for three quality playoff opponents so far.

“Just play our game, don’t let up,” Marlies defenseman Travis Dermott said of Toronto’s game-closing mindset. “I don’t think that we’re a team that needs to let up. If we can stay on the offense and keep pushing, we can keep them in their zone instead of us trying to get out of ours.”

The Atlantic Division regular-season champion Lehigh Valley Phantoms, whose 104 points ranked second in the AHL, have been the latest team to be hit with that lesson.

The Marlies hold a 3-0 series in the Eastern Conference Finals after a 5-0 road win in Game 3 on Wednesday. They can book their first trip to the Calder Cup Finals since 2012 with a Game 4 win at Lehigh Valley on Friday (7:05 ET, TSN2, NHL Network, AHL Live).

Toronto has won eight consecutive playoff games and continues to tear through some of the best competition that the AHL can offer. A win Friday would earn the Marlies back-to-back sweeps of the teams with the second-best (Lehigh Valley) and fourth-best (Syracuse) records in the league.

Visitors to Lehigh Valley have struggled this season. With a loud fan base backing them inside the 8,420-seat PPL Center, the Phantoms’ 27 home victories this season topped the AHL.

But the Marlies, who set an AHL regular-season record with 30 road wins, know how to spoil the mood for the home fans. They did exactly that in Game 3 when Carl Grundstrom put in his team-leading sixth playoff goal on a rebound past Phantoms goaltender Alex Lyon all of 1:01 into the game.

“If we let them bring it in their home barn, then they would get some support and maybe they would get some more momentum going,” Dermott said.

Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe has plenty of ingredients in what has so far been a very impressive recipe. Toronto held Lehigh Valley, the second-ranked scoring outfit in the regular season at 3.42 goals per game, to 16 shots.

Toronto forwards tormented Lehigh Valley throughout Game 3. Even against a quick, skilled group like the Phantoms, the Toronto forecheck can be highly disruptive. Lehigh Valley frequently struggled to move pucks out of the defensive zone. When they did manage to exit, they often skated right into the buzz saw that is the Toronto neutral-zone forecheck.

“They’re a dangerous team when they’re able to get speed and chip pucks behind us,” said Marlies captain Ben Smith, who collected two third-period goals. “We have to be careful and try to keep guys above them.”

A puck-possession mindset means that the Marlies look to make plays first before resorting to dumping pucks. But if forced to, the Marlies can adapt.

“When we have to put pucks in, we like to get on top of [opponents] quickly,” Keefe said. “Once we do, we’ve got good offensive people that can make plays and get to the net.”

That disruption helped to set up a 3-0 Toronto lead by 12:32 of the second period, more than enough to deflate the home club and its fans. Andreas Johnsson, part of what has been a dominant line with Grundstrom and Miro Aaltonen, jabbed a rebound under Lyon after the Phantoms had threatened early in the second period. Later in the period, winger Mason Marchment parked his 6-foot-4, 204-pound self in front of Lyon before banging in a puck for his third playoff goal.

“Their d-men don’t like going side-to-side too much,” Dermott said. “As much as we can get them skating around and open them up, then those jam plays are going to be available.”

Toronto does not sit back, either. Once ahead 3-0, the Marlies continued to bear down on Lehigh Valley. Lyon’s third-period match penalty put the Marlies on the power play, and Smith’s two ensuing goals blew the game open.

“That’s what we tried doing in the third,” Dermott said. “We didn’t want to give them any reason to come next game with anything more than they would have with us winning [Game 3].”

Constantly chipping away at an opponent’s breakout options, that Toronto pressure creates chaos for opponents, and that disruption means pucks on the sticks of Marlies forwards.

“We try to rim it a lot of the time,” said Dermott, who played 37 regular-season games with the parent Toronto Maple Leafs and seven more playoff games this season. “We know that we have a weak-side winger going. We try to get on their d-man who is retrieving that.

“Most of the time there is a left-handed defenseman on the left side, so if he’s getting that rim, it’s on his backhand. I know it’s tough to handle, especially if you have some big forwards coming down, some fast forwards with good sticks, it’s definitely tough getting that puck out.

“If they’re trying to make a play, let’s make them make a [lousy] play, a little chip play where we can jump and hopefully the puck bounces on them and creates something for us.”

The evening left Keefe, not one to dole out praise indiscriminately, a happy head coach.

“Full marks for our guys,” Keefe said. “A great, great effort. It was fun to watch.”