After bouncing the formidable Providence Bruins in round one and sweeping the league’s hottest team in round two, the Checkers are now facing down what could be their toughest opponent of the postseason in the Toronto Marlies.
The reigning Calder Cup champions, Toronto finished the regular season in the third-place spot in the North Division but have since received an ample supply of reinforcements from the Maple Leafs. Reinvigorated, the Marlies have yet to drop a game this postseason.
“They’re the defending champs so they’ve been there and done it,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “They’re a really good team and it’s a big test for us.”
“They’re obviously a skilled team and they have a bit of experience having won it last year,” said Trevor Carrick.
While the makeup of the two squads differs – Toronto is one of the AHL’s older teams while the Checkers are one of the youngest – the on-ice product is remarkably similar, with this series pitting two of the league’s heavyweights against each another.
“It’s almost like looking in a mirror, systems-wise,” said Vellucci. “We play a very similar system to them. We’ve been doing a lot of video lately and we don’t see many differences between how we play and how they play.”
With such a neck-and-neck matchup, Vellucci knows his team will need to gain an edge in other lesser-acknowledged areas.
“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.”
The special teams battle stands out for a reason. Through the first two rounds, Toronto’s power play has operated at a staggering 39.1 percent, leading the league in that category. The good news for Charlotte is that it has killed 89.5 percent of its penalties, surrendering just four total power-play goals on 38 chances thus far. Still, even with their prowess, it’s in the Checkers’ best interest to cut down on those opportunities, as they are the second-most penalized team over this postseason.
“Toronto has the best power play in the league,” said Vellucci. “If we’re taking penalties, our kill better be good. We have to stay out of the box against them. The penalty kill was a big thing in that last series, though, and there were guys like Zach Nastasiuk who was a great penalty killer for us, stepping up and blocking shots and everything.”
The Checkers and Marlies mirror each other between the pipes as well, although their netminders’ paths to that point were quite different.
Alex Nedeljkovic put on a show during the regular season, emerging as the league’s top goaltender and collecting the hardware that comes along with that. He’s kept that rolling into the playoffs, turning in some stellar performances to get the Checkers to this point.
“Ned’s been frickin’ awesome,” said Carrick. “All you can ask from him is to keep playing the way he has. The guy has been like that all year and we wouldn’t be where we are without him. We’re going to do our best defensively to keep pucks out and help him out but he’s been great and I’m sure he’s going to keep it going.”
On the other side, Kasimir Kaskisuo has emerged as the Marlies’ workhorse in the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a goals-against average north of three and a save percentage below .900. But the 25-year-old has been lights out in the postseason, starting in all seven of the Marlies’ wins and surrendering just 11 total goals along the way.
The Checkers will have their work cut out for them against a stingy Toronto squad, but their high-powered offense – which is averaging over four goals a game this postseason – has more than enough weapons to make some noise.
“We need scoring from everybody, that was our key all year long,” said Vellucci. “The first round the [Morgan] Geekie line carried us and then the Marty [Necas] and [Tomas] Jurco and Nic Roy line stepped up in the second and Goat [Julien Gauthier] had a great series too. We need to spread it out, especially against these guys.”
Toronto’s offense has been similarly impressive during this postseason run, ranking just under the Checkers in terms of goals-per-game. The Marlies boast two of the league’s top 10 scorers during the regular season in Jeremy Bracco and Chris Mueller – both of whom are pacing Toronto in the playoffs as well, but their depth is another case of mirroring Charlotte’s strengths.
“They have four lines also,” said Vellucci. “They have a checking line that can play against the top line so the matchups are going to be different for us. We need everybody contributing in every way, not just scoring goals.”
“They’re a quick team but I think we’re a pretty quick team too and we can match that,” said Carrick. “We’ll have to be solid defensively, they have a pretty high-end forward group there so we’ll have shut them down, play physical in our end and keep them away from our net.”
The two highly-regarded squads also enter the Eastern Conference Finals with well over a week to prepare for one another, an aspect that should bring out the best of both sides.
“We know they have a good team that’s very deep,” said Zack Stortini. “We’ve been preparing all week, doing video and having meetings, so we’re ready to go. It’s going to be a tough battle with two good teams going at it.”
And while the experienced Marlies come into the series with hopes of keeping their title defense alive, the Checkers and their growing confidence [LINK] are ready to put another series to rest.
“You just have to look at it as any other series and come in with the same work ethic,” said Carrick. “You probably have to keep that in the back of your mind that they’re feeling good about themselves and they know what it takes, but it would definitely be nice to end that this year.”