With the North Division crown secured weeks ago, the Toronto Marlies had to wait until the final day of the American Hockey League schedule before knowing who they would play in the first round of the playoffs.
Five teams fought for the last four positions in the Western Conference and, when all was said and done, it was the Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres affiliate) who came out as the seventh seed and Toronto's first-round opponent.
Game 1 is Thursday at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum.
“The good thing with Rochester is we've played them a bunch of times and we're familiar with them,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. “I expect every game to be a one-goal game, a low scoring series, tight checking and a little gritty.”
Rochester (36-26-14), a North-Division foe, played the Marlies (44-24-8) 10 times in the regular season. Toronto went 7-3-0 and every contest was decided by one goal, including four that went to overtime or shootout.
In total, Toronto played in 37 one-goal games this season, going 18-12-7.
“Our group has gone through so many one-goal games that they have a quiet confidence in them,” said Eakins. “That bodes well for the playoffs.”
Unlike years past, the AHL changed this year's first-round matchups to a best of five-game series rather than the normal seven.
Regardless, the change doesn't seem to be something that will affect Eakins and his club.
“I never looked at them, even as a player, as a seven or five-game series,” said Eakins. “It's always been five one-game series. You never want to get up 2-0 and get comfortable. You just have to win each game and that's what I'll tell the group.”
This is the first time the Marlies have qualified for the post-season since 2009 when they bowed out to the Manitoba Moose in the first round. Only captain Ryan Hamilton, Jay Rosehill, Andrew Martens and Josh Engel remain from that squad.
Unlike 2009, when Toronto battled their way in as a sixth-place team, this Marlies team is the second seed and has three major attributes they will rely on for a deep run in the playoffs: penalty killing, goaltending and veteran leadership.
All season they boasted the league's top penalty kill and finished with an efficiency rate of 88.1 per cent. They allowed seven fewer goals while short-handed than the next best team.
“It's huge for our confidence that we can take a penalty and know that our penalty-kill guys will kill it off,” said forward Joe Colborne. “It's almost a shock when we get scored on a man down.”
Goaltender Ben Scrivens heads into his first post-season as the league's Harry (Hap) Holmes award-winner, a trophy given for appearing in more than 25 games on the team with the fewest goals against. The 25-year-old Scrivens went 22-15-1 with a 2.04 goals-against-average and .926 save percentage in 39 games.
“It's a nice personal accolade but if you tell yourself you're the reason you're here it's a good way to lose yourself mentally. It's a team award that Jussi (Rynnas) and Mark (Owuya) were a part of too,” said Scrivens. “My confidence is high but you have to gauge it. I've never played in the playoffs at this level so it's exciting for me.”
Eakins believes veterans like Mike Zigomanis, the team's leading scorer, Phil Dupuis and Hamilton will play a key role in the playoffs.
“It's huge for our veterans now,” said Eakins. “(For) a lot of our young players, this will be their first pro playoff series.
“When adversity hits on or off the ice, our young players will immediately look to our veterans to see how they handle it. Our veterans are even more key now for the prospects and their success.”
Eakins added that while much of the season's focus has been on development, the post-season has one goal only — to win.
“This isn't prospect hockey anymore,” said Eakins. “This is men's hockey. When you get in the playoffs and you're faced with adversity, you see the true player that you have. This is where you see if your guys give in or push back and I think we have push-back guys.”
Toronto will also be heading into the post season with depth as they have 13 players who, at some point in the last two seasons, saw time in the NHL. They include Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and Carter Ashton, who joined the Marlies after the Leafs season officially ended.