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Marlies carrying Leafs flag deep into AHL playoffs

Toronto Marlies' Nazem Kadri, left, celebrates his third period goal against the Abbotsford Heat along with teammate Ryan Hamilton during American Hockey League playoff action at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ont. Thursday, May 3/2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is exactly what the Toronto Maple Leafs were hoping for when their own playoff hopes went belly up late in the year.

A sign of progress down on the farm, in the form of a long run in the AHL postseason. Something – anything – to hang their hats on with the fan base getting restless and the big club playoff-less for a seventh straight season.

The Toronto Marlies won their seventh game of the playoffs on Wednesday night in Abbotsford, taking their second round series in five games after sweeping the Rochester Americans in Round 1.

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The winner came in overtime and from a veteran (and Don Cherry favourite) in Mike Zigomanis, but for the most part, the Marlies young players are the ones who have been getting the job done.

Goaltender Ben Scrivens, who was decent in a brief audition with the Leafs, has been terrific, leading the AHL in save percentage (.944) in going 7-1 after a strong finish to his season.

Jerry D'Amigo, 21, is back from his titanic struggles to adjust to the pro game a year ago and has six goals and nine points to lead the team in scoring. (He's also plus-10.)

Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner – all of whom spent time with the Leafs this season – aren't far behind.

While you see a lot of AHL teams succeeding on the backs of their minor-league veterans who will have little to do with the NHL club's future success, that hasn't been the case for Toronto.

They've lost the Jeff Finger types to injury, sat out Colton Orr, and given starring roles to talent that may be able to help the Leafs next season.

And the average age of the team's regulars? Just 22.9 years old, which is well below their two potential opponents in the next round.

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By my count, as many as five of the current Marlies have a shot at full-time duties in the NHL next year, even as the Leafs attempt to make a significant step forward in the standings, and any extra experience they can gain right now is obviously pivotal.

Scrivens, for one, should be battling James Reimer for a spot on the team. Kadri, Frattin and Gardiner can step into various roles they filled at points already this season.

And someone like Korbinian Holzer, who was a stand out at times in their second round series (he was named first star in Game 2), may fill a depth role on right defence – especially if one of Luke Schenn, Cody Franson or Mike Komisarek doesn't return in that slot next season.

"Sometimes injuries or opportunity doesn't arise at the NHL level and that kid's been really patient," Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said of Holzer during the series. "He's just been excellent for us down the stretch... He's used in a shutdown role, but he's got better hands than everyone thinks he has. He has an excellent shot."

Maybe you can even include the likes of Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton, a big body who looks more fit for fourth line duty than a pure puncher like Jay Rosehill.

What the Leafs would love to have happen is for the Marlies success to translate over to a solid year for the NHL team next season, just as it did for the Ottawa Senators this year with so many members of the 2011 Calder Cup winning Binghamton team playing key roles.

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That's not always how it plays out with minor league teams. There's no direct correlation between Calder Cups and those of the Stanley variety, even if organizations that have strong AHL franchises tend to improve a little bit in the NHL in subsequent years.

The Leafs obviously need more of a bump than that, and getting a decent year as a backup out of Scrivens or a more even campaign as a third-liner out of Frattin isn't going to make all of that difference.

Still, you'd rather have a winning culture developing in one organization rather than not at all, and the Marlies definitely have that.

The other positive is that, for the first time since moving to Toronto in 2005, the Marlies are drawing more than flies, with even a few sell outs so far in these playoffs. It'll be interesting to watch if that builds in Round 3, when they'll face the affiliate of either the Florida Panthers (average age: 24.6) or Edmonton Oilers (24.7) beginning sometime next week.

Because World League Volleyball is taking over the Marlies home at Ricoh Coliseum next weekend, that may even mean they get a game at a relatively empty Air Canada Centre.

Imagine that: Playoff hockey at the ACC in late May.

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