The Toronto Marlies had better embrace the underdog role when the Calder Cup final opens Friday.
Their challenge is to beat a Norfolk Admirals team that posted the longest win streak in American Hockey League or NHL history (29 games) this season.
The Admirals finished 14 points ahead of the AHL’s second-place team during the regular season and have lost just three times in the past four months.
With his team missing at least three key bodies and looking to find a weakness of the Admirals, Marlies coach Dallas Eakins canvassed the organization’s scouts and a couple of the coaches of Norfolk’s playoff opponents over the past few days.
They didn’t offer much reassurance.
“I wish I wouldn’t have called,” Eakins said. “I came away from the phone call going, ‘Holy man, what are we going to do?’
“… This is a dangerous, dangerous team that we’re playing. I was aware of all those games they won in a row, but everybody that’s played against them said they didn’t do that by accident. They are that good.”
Norfolk, the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, boasts likely the deepest cast of forwards in the league, a group that’s led by Cory Conacher, who pulled off a rare feat in winning the AHL most valuable player and rookie of the year award this season.
The 22-year-old Burlington, Ont., native is just 5 foot 8 and went undrafted but considers Lightning star Martin St. Louis his idol and could now be following in his footsteps after a terrific pro debut.
Beyond Conacher, the Admirals have a host of AHL veterans such as former eighth overall pick Alexandre Picard and Trevor Smith, who have led them in scoring in these playoffs.
The Marlies will have difficulty matching that firepower without an entire top line of talent in Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Mike Zigomanis – all three of whom haven’t practised this week and are unlikely to play early in the series.
Frattin, the AHL’s leading playoff goal scorer, has already been ruled out entirely as he needs surgery on a knee injury suffered in the third round of the playoffs.
Two other forwards, Carter Ashton and Marcel Mueller, are questionable, leaving Eakins potentially forced to play several rookies high up in his lineup.
“I think they have one injury and we have at least a No. 1 line out and possibly almost our top two lines out,” Eakins said. “You can look at it however you want, but we’re not going to take on that role and say we’re the underdog.
“Our players expect to win, I expect them to win and I don’t care who’s in the lineup.”
One area where the Toronto Maple Leafs farm hands should have an advantage is in goal. Starter Ben Scrivens was one of the AHL’s top netminders with a .926 save percentage during the season. His .944 leads the league in the playoffs.
Admirals backstop Dustin Tokarski, however, is no slouch (.939 in the playoffs) and won a Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008.
The Marlies may also have as slight edge on the blueline with Leafs prospects Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer picking up many of the big minutes, although they have bodies banged up there, too.
Limiting Norfolk’s opportunities isn’t likely to be as easy as it was in earlier rounds, either, but it’ll be a must with Toronto missing so many of its top offensive weapons to start the series.
“That’s our goal,” Holzer said. “To just keep them on the outside, try to limit their shot quality and chances and see how it works out.”
In addition to going over video with his players, Eakins has been imparting some of his wisdom from his own minor-league championship experiences.
He won both an AHL and International Hockey League title with the Chicago Wolves in 2000 and 2002 and said Wednesday that staying focused is one of the keys to winning it all.
“It’s very important to live in the moment,” he said.