You won’t find a more even duel this spring than the AHL Eastern Conference Finals. The Toronto Marlies and Charlotte Checkers (affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes) both step into the ring together coming off a second-round sweep of their opponents and a week of practices. Both teams are fierce teams with young high-end talent on defense and a good combination of NHL prospects, AHL talent, and AHL veterans at forward. In net, neither set of goalies face that much rubber, but have made the most of it when they do in these playoffs.
The conference finals begin tonight (Friday and Saturday) with a two-game set in Charlotte, North Carolina before coming back to Toronto for three games during the week (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday). Game 6 and 7 will be on the road the following weekend should it get to that — which is not likely considering only Charlotte has needed one game more than the minimum to get to this point while Toronto comes in following two sweeps.
Despite not losing a game in these playoffs, the Marlies have constantly been making changes to their lineup. Whether it be additions from Europe, demotions back from the NHL playoffs, injuries, or the need to shift players around in order to improve 5v5 play, Sheldon Keefe and co. have not let success introduce stagnation.
WATCH: @HockeyCrock tees up the Eastern Conference Finals ahead of game one tonight in Charlotte.#BackForMore | #MarliesLive pic.twitter.com/mLpBJcfMbi— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) May 17, 2019
Since Game 1 of the playoffs, we’ve seen Trevor Moore, Calle Rosen, Egor Korshkov, and most recently Jesper Lindgren added to the roster.
Moore started on the first line, but was moved to the second line to reunite the Kid Line from last postseason. Michael Carcone is now up as the third wheel with Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco. Korshkov (formerly Yegor) has slotted onto the third line with a pair of very good two-way forwards with offensive touch; most of the work done to make him comfortable with the team has come off the ice with the new language and culture barrier being chipped away at.
On defense, Sandin and Liljegren are back together as a result of Calle Rosen’s upper-body injury. Rosen took part in his first practice on Wednesday and flew with the team to Charlotte. Once he returns, expect 19-year-old Sandin to be bumped down to the third pair. It’ll be interesting to see which of Lindgren or Hollowell stays in the lineup when Rosen returns. Lindgren has just come off winning the Finnish Championship and is in his second stint with the Marlies. Hollowell, however, has been getting overwhelming praise from Keefe and his teammates. His play isn’t perfect, and he’s been working under sheltered usage, but he’s a lot farther along than people thought he would be and has been a real contributor on the third pair.
The Marlies have a lot more players on their roster than this, but below are the players skating as the main group during practices. The rest, which you can a list of find here, have been skating with a few of the assistant coaches and the goalies as a separate group before practices begin.
Michael Carcone - Chris Mueller - Jeremy Bracco
Mason Marchment - Adam Brooks - Trevor Moore
Dmytro Timashov - Pierre Engvall - Egor Korshkov
Nicolas Baptiste - Colin Greening - Josh Jooris
Scratches: Rich Clune, Griffen Molino, Tanner MacMaster
Rasmus Sandin - Timothy Liljegren
Andreas Borgman - Vincent LoVerde
Jesper Lindgren - Mac Hollowell
Scratches: Calle Rosen (inj), Joseph Duszak
The Other Team
The Charlotte Checkers have been wire-to-wire the best team in the AHL all of last year. They’re basically the Calder Cup Champion Toronto Marlies from 2017-18 without the ring. Their top-six is filled with prospects in their early 20s or AHLers in their primes. Aleksi Saarela was one of only 13 30-goal scorers in the AHL (Carter Verhaeghe led the league with 34 and Chris Mueller was third with 33), while Julien Gauthier scored 27 and Martin Necas put up 54 points.
Carolina had a chance to bring in a lot of firepower to the AHL following their sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins (**** *** ******) with Warren Foegele, Saku Mäenalanen, and their two star defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury, but they chose to show the Marlies mercy and only sent down the two defensemen. Unfortunately, that means a defense who has been able to give up only two goals a game has just added an elite first pair. They basically got another Sandin and Liljegren.
.@Jason_Shaya and Coach Vellucci break down what to watch for in Game 1 with the Pregame Report! pic.twitter.com/tkEvJ7Paat— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) May 17, 2019
From Checkers coach (and former NHLer) Mike Vellucci, who is in the rotation of potential NHL coaches shared by the insiders, had some interesting things to say about who his team is and who he thinks they’re going up against. You can ready the full article here.
“It’s going to come down to the little things,” he said. “The power play, the penalty kill, all those little things are going to add up.”
We don’t know what the lines will be with the new returning faces from the NHL coming back down (it’s not like we knew the lines back then anyway), so here is the list of forwards and defensemen games played + points order.
Morgan Geekie, Tomas Jurco, Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier, Martin Necas, Nick Schilkey, Stelio Mattheos, Zach Nastasiuk, Andrew Poturalski, Aleksi Saarela, Steven Lorentz, Jacob Pritchard, Clark Bishop, Patrick Brown
Jake Bean, Haydn Fleury, Josiah Didier, Trevor Carrick, Bobby Sanguinetti, Dan Renouf, Dennis Robertson, Jesper Sellgren.
We have some lines:
The boys are back in town and ready to kick off the Eastern Conference Finals!#LetsGoCheckers pic.twitter.com/GYom8306j9— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) May 17, 2019
Speaking of special teams, of the teams that made it out of the first round (sorry, Syracuse) Charlotte has the second-best power play ticking at 29%. The only team above them is the Toronto Marlies who are trouncing the competition with a 39% power play percentage. In granular terms, the Marlies have nine power play goals to the Checkers six in 23 power play opportunities each.
The power play is a massive asset for the Marlies, and was one of the main reasons why they won the first four or so games in the playoffs. Their even-strength game was rather trash, but the power play carried them to a lot of victories. The Game 1 win over Cleveland where they scored four power play goals really killed the energy in the Monsters. As the series continued on, the power play somewhat came back down to Earth, so getting it back up to a high rate will be very important.
On the penalty kill, the story isn’t quite as identical. The Checkers have a better success rate at 90%, which is first among teams that made it past the first round (once again, sorry Syracuse, and now sorry Bridgeport). The Marlies are a little farther behind, running at 86%. The main difference between these two teams comes in the number of times that they fall down a man. The Checkers are one of the most penalized teams at 38 penalties in eight games, while the Marlies are on the low end, taking only 22 penalties in seven games. That high number of power play opportunities could really activate Bracco, Mueller, et al. and make them the difference.