The Marlies and Devils second round playoff series started Wednesday night in Toronto. The Marlies entered with high expectations coming off an incredible 54-16-6 regular season record, and a first-round sweep of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers to advance to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
As the regular season wound down, Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe's post-game interviews had a recurring theme: he was happy with the results, but concerned the team was taking winning for granted, making regular errors, and that they didn't take seriously that playoff hockey would be a much more difficult experience.
As you go through the regular season with the type of team that we had, we've scored a lot of goals and played in a lot of games where playoff type hockey wasn't really happening. - April 2
After a surprise loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack near the end of the regular season he said the following:
The concern going into the game is the guys might think it might be too easy.
That wasn't like playoff hockey out there, and we didn't have the same level of urgency. - April 13
Perhaps on Wednesday night the team learned their lesson. The loss appeared to sting, especially because the Marlies didn't play poorly, but were instead confronted with a team that looked well prepared to defeat them.
The game started with the Marlies having frequent stretches of puck possession on the attack. It was almost like they were on the power play at times. By the three-minute mark of the first period the Marlies had kept the puck in the Devils' zone for about, well, three minutes.
Their high level of possession dominance didn't last long though. The Devils adapted, and it quickly became obvious this game was that type of playoff hockey of which the Marlies had not seen frequently in the regular season.
Connor Carrick responded a minute later with his fourth goal of the playoffs, but then the Devils added a second goal one minute later themselves, scored by Matt Lorito. That was three goals in two minutes of the first period. At that point in the game the crowd was roaring and it felt like it could be a really exciting game, but it turned into hockey gridlock instead.
The tone of the game quickly changed. Some big hits started flying, notably by Justin Blandisi, and the game became chippy. Post-whistle scrums were happening almost every break in play. The Devils' Paul Thompson was a frequent instigator.
The game dragged through the next two periods. Sparks' goaltending was good, the defence adequate, and there were many more scoring chances, but neither team seemed to be able to form an effective attack. It felt like both teams had figured out how to suppress each others offence, and instead of changing that up, they tried instead to focused their efforts on wearing each other down.
The Marlies often dumped the puck in to the Devils zone instead of trying to carry it in, which inevitably resulted in the Devils checking and grinding them in the corner, a turnover, and then the Devils doing the same thing with the same result.
To borrow a phrase, the Marlies' play was "OK. Just OK."
If this game is any indication, it is going to be a long hard grind through this series against the Devils.
Sheldon Keefe succinctly summarised the situation the Marlies now face in the playoffs, saying "Good games are not quite good enough."
Kasperi Kapanen explained post-game about their offence "if you score [only] one goal it's kind of hard to win a hockey game."
Indeed this was not a bad game, but this really is now the playoffs and one wonders if Keefe's comments from the end of the regular season may be accurate; the team wasn't familiar with facing a rival of their own caliber, and will have to quickly shift their game back into high gear, or get bounced.
Goal highlights from the game are in the video below.
The Marlies' next game is Friday at 7:30 p.m. After Friday, the series moves back to Albany for three games. If necessary, games 6 and 7 will be back in Toronto on Saturday May 14, and Monday May 16.