Toronto Marlies (3-Seed, 45-25-2-4, 96 points, 223 goals for, 202 goals against). vs. Milwaukee Admirals (6-Seed, 39-24-6-7, 91 points, 215 goals for, 199 goals against).
Game 1: Friday, April 25: Milwaukee vs. Toronto, 7:00PM; Game 2: Saturday, April 26: Milwaukee vs. Toronto, 7:00PM; Game 3: Thursday, May 1: Milwaukee at Toronto, 6:00PM; Game 4*: Saturday, May 3: Milwaukee at Toronto, 2:00PM; Game 5*: Sunday, May 4: Milwaukee at Toronto, 3:00PM. *If necessary.
Here is how I see the Milwaukee/Toronto matchup breaking down:
Pick your poison, would you prefer the high-end scoring talent of Toronto or the four-line offense of Milwaukee? Spencer Abbott leads Marlies forwards with 69 points (17 goals, 52 assists). He has plenty of company in scoring threats Greg McKegg‘s 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists), Josh Leivo‘s 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists), and Jerry D’Amigo‘s 33 points (20 goals, 13 assists). However, Toronto’s biggest threat is defenseman T.J. Brennan, the reigning Eddie Shore Award winner, who led the team with 72 points (25 goals, 47 assists) – good for third best in the AHL. The Admirals are slightly less potent with Colton Sissons‘ 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists), Taylor Beck‘s 49 points (team-leading 32 assists) Austin Watson‘s 46 points (22 goals, 24 points), Calle Jarnkrok‘s 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists), and Miikka Salomaki, who has a team-leading 50 points (20 goals, 30 assists). These are all solid scoring options on a team without much difference top to bottom on its four lines. Advantage Toronto.
Toronto’s blueline might be littered with bigger names, notably Brennan and Korbinian Holzer (23 points, +5), and high-end prospects Kevin Marshall and Stuart Percy, but Milwaukee’s anchor is always its defense, which I see as deeper than the Marlies. Veterans Scott Ford and Joe Piskula (+20 rating) are staples on one of the league’s best corps., even if Admirals like Anthony Bitetto (36 points), Bryan Rodney (34 points) and Joonas Jarvinen are a bit more unknown throughout the league. Advantage Milwaukee.
The most obvious toss up matchup in this series is goaltending. I expect veteran Drew MacIntyre (29-15-3, 2.53 GAA, .917 SP) to get the call to anchor Toronto (29-15-3, 2.53 GAA, .917 SP) versus Milwaukee rookie Marek Mazanec (18-10-3, 2.44 GAA, .914 SP) and potentially Scott Darling (13-6-2, 2.00 GAA, .933 SP). MacIntyre has been one of the league’s best for a long time, and has six games of NHL experience with Vancouver, Buffalo and Toronto. Mazanec actually has 25 games of NHL experience to his credit, plus a Czech League title last season with Plzen, winning Game 7 of the Finals in overtime. Added Bonus: The 22-year-old Czech netminder is red hot as of late. Even.
Toronto has the AHL’s ninth-best power play, clicking at a 19.9% clip this season (71 goals on 356 attempts). On the road the Marlies score at an even better 20.7%. Milwaukee executes at 17.5%, 14th best in the AHL (60 goals on 343 attempts). The Admirals have an abysmal road power play, scoring just 12.5% of the time, versus their sixth-best power play at home (22.3%). Led by Mark Van Guider, Milwaukee has an excellent penalty kill, seventh-best in the AHL and successful 83.8% of the time (52 goals against in 321 attempts). At home the Admirals improve to 86.2%. Toronto carries the AHL’s 11th-best penalty kill at 83.2% (64 goals against in 380 attempts), and like Milwaukee is far better at home (86.2%). The Marlies have slightly better special teams overall, but take many more penalties than Milwaukee. Even.
As far as a professional record, Admirals bench boss Dean Evason has a huge advantage over Marlies coach Steve Spott. Evason spent seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals before taking over the head coaching position with Milwaukee, where he guided the team to an average of 40 wins per season and a 2013 first-round playoff loss last year at the hands of Texas. Spott came to Toronto, via the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, where he had plenty of success. Last fall Spott was the surprising choice to replace the highly coveted Dallas Eakins who moved on to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. Advantage Milwaukee.
When I look at intangibles in this series, I see Toronto’s three-pack of Division titles, home-ice advantage and a fan base that should show up in droves considering the same-town Maple Leafs did not make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Milwaukee is hungry, coming off of two straight early postseason exits, which lasted just seven games in total. However, this is an extremely deep Admirals club that can roll four lines and six defensemen without any significant talent drop off. Advantage Toronto.
Though Toronto’s roster features only a few skaters left from the 2012 squad that advanced to the Calder Cup Finals, players like D’Amigo and Holzer know how to win in the playoffs. Last year the young Marlies swept Rochester before falling to eventual champion Grand Rapids in six games. However, MacIntyre was shelled in that series. Meanwhile, Milwaukee is three seasons removed from its last series victory, a six-gamer against Texas that saw both MVG and Ford play key roles. The Admirals’ margin in the four-game loss last spring to the Stars was razor thin. Advantage Toronto.
Much like last year against Texas, I expect this to be an extremely tight series. Despite the fact that Milwaukee swept the two game series this year, these two teams are highly comparable on paper. Toronto might have a little more flash, but Milwaukee is deeper and tough enough to handle the Marlies’ physical play advantage. In a series that could go either way, I predict Milwaukee to win in five games.
Other First Round Thoughts:
East: Manchester 3-0 over Norfolk; Providence 3-2 over Springfield; W-B/Scranton 3-2 over Binghamton; St. John’s 3-1 over Albany.
West: Oklahoma City 3-2 over Texas; Chicago 3-2 over Rochester; Grand Rapids 3-2 over Abbotsford.
So Roundtable . . . How do you see this series shaking out? Any predictions? Ideas for shutting down Brennan?