TORONTO, ON – The Toronto Marlies have had an outstanding season, winning the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the top team in the AHL. Garret Sparks won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award for top AHL goalie. Sparks and Calvin Picard won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for the least goals allowed per game during the regular season. They have swept their last two playoffs series. Next up are the Stars, a team they have not played since 2015.
The Texas Stars returned to the playoffs this season after a one-year hiatus, marking the seventh trip in their nine-year history. The Stars closed out the season with points in seven-straight games to gain the Pacific division’s number two-seed. Texas was boosted to full-strength for the playoffs, with key players such as Mike McKenna, Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson, Curtis McKenzie, and Dillon Heatherington all returning from NHL time with Dallas. The Stars defeated the Ontario Reign 3-1 and the Tucson Roadrunners 4-1 over the first two rounds, before earning a hard-fought six game victory over the Rockford IceHogs in the West Final. Texas is looking for its second title after having won in 2014.
Final Regular Season Records::
Toronto Marlies: 54-18-2-2,112 pts (1st in North Division, 1st in Eastern Conference)
Texas Stars: 38-24-8-6, 90 pts (2nd in Pacific Division, 5th in Western Conference)
How They Got Here:
Division Semifinal Results:
Texas defeated Ontario, 3-1
Toronto defeated Utica, 3-2
Division Final Results:
Texas defeated Tucson, 4-1
Toronto defeated Syracuse, 4-0
Conference Final Results:
Texas defeated Rockford, 4-2
Toronto defeated Lehigh Valley, 4-0
Game 1 – Saturday, June 2 – Texas at TORONTO 4:00 pm ET
Game 2 – Sunday, June 3 – Texas at TORONTO 4:00 pm ET
Game 3 – Tuesday, June 5 – Toronto at TEXAS 7:00 pm CT
Game 4 – Thursday, June 7 – Toronto at TEXAS 7:00 pm CT
Game 5* – Saturday, June 9 – Toronto at TEXAS 7:00 pm CT
Game 6* – Tuesday, June 12 – Texas at TORONTO 7:00 pm ET
Game 7* – Thursday, June 14 – Texas at TORONTO 7:00 pm ET
* => If Necessary
The Marlies have only played Pickard twice in the playoffs, the first time occuring when Sparks was pulled in Utica. The second time was for game three in Syracuse, which was a back-to-back game. Otherwise, Sparks has played all of the games earning a 1.96 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Pickard’s numbers are actually better at a 1.15 GAA and a .949 save percentage, but he had ten fewer games than Sparks.
McKenna has made all but one start for the Stars in the postseason and has appeared in every game. He relieved Landon Bow midway through the second period in game three against the Ontario Reign in round one, holding the Reign at four while the Stars rallied to win 5-4 in double overtime. McKenna enters the finals with a record of 11-4 in the playoffs and sporting stellar stats in a 1.97 GAA and a .940 save percentage.
How Toronto Wins:
For the first round, the Marlies’ had to play the 15th place Utica Comets. This was a team they knew well, but the Marlies struggled to win outright and it took all five games of the series for them to move to the next round. It was in that final game that the Marlies seemed to have found their groove as Sparks shutout the Comets. Next up was the fourth place Syracuse Crunch, who played some really good hockey. Eventually, the Marlies took their game up a notch and beat the Crunch in four straight as they swept the round.
In the conference finals, the Marlies faced the number two team in the league, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. While the first two games were really tight, the Marlies managed to eke out the wins at home. Expecting the Phantoms to push at home, the Marlies came out strong and scored early in game 3. They came out so strong that the first goal, scored 61 seconds into the game, proved to be the game-winning goal as Sparks got his second shutout of the playoffs. While the Phantoms tried to force a game five the Marlies held them off and secured the win to sweep their second series in a row. This was the first time they swept two series in a row since 2014 and was the first time ever they swept two best-of-seven series in a row.
During their team-best nine game winning streak, the Marlies have skated the same players in almost the exact same lines. The defensive pairs have been solid with all three squads getting about even ice time. Three of the top five +/- players in the playoffs are on the JAG (Johnsson-Aaltonen-Grundstrom) line. Andreas Johnsson has been fantastic, getting 15 points in nine games. Miro Aaltonen has earned 10 points, with all four of his goals coming off passes from Johnsson. Meanwhile, Carl Grundstrom is tied with Aaltonen with 10 points in 13 games.
The way the Marlies will win is to keep playing the game their way as they have only been down four times in the last two series. They can be expected to play the same players and play the same game. They will have to adjust to the style of hockey that the Stars play, and this includes trying to score early while the Stars are figuring out the Marlies. The Marlies have outscored their opponents 48-27 in the playoffs, while the Stars have only outscored their opponents 44-37. The Marlies have two shutouts with Sparks, while the excellent McKenna also has earned two shutouts.
How Texas Wins:
The Stars come into the Finals extremely battle-tested, having edged their opponent by a single goal in 8 of 11 playoff victories, and with seven of those wins coming in overtime. Texas was actually outscored by Ontario 12-11 in the first round but won theirs by only a single goal difference. McKenna was a massive part of the Stars’ close victory. He only failed to start game three but was brought in midway through the 4-3 game and shutout the Reign for the rest of the series as they won that game 5-4 in 2OT. Game four was a 1-0 shutout to take the series.
Texas lost game one of the second round to Tucson in overtime and responded with four straight wins to eliminate the regular season’s best in the West. With that, the Stars were into the Western Conference Final to face the Rockford IceHogs, who came in undefeated through two rounds. Texas jumped on Rockford, winning the first three games in close fashion to take a commanding lead in the series. Though the IceHogs were able to get back into the series with wins in games four and five at home, the Stars closed it out by claiming a dramatic 2-1 overtime victory in game six back home in Cedar Park.
Now comes the final hurdle, and it is not a small one in the league-leading Toronto Marlies. The Stars have been extremely clutch in the playoffs, and that will need to continue if the Stars are to beat the AHL’s top team. Toronto also comes in with a good record in one-goal playoff games, perfect in fact at 5-0. With starting goaltending from the likes of Sparks and McKenna, there promises to be no shortage of tight finishes between the Marlies and Stars.
Texas will look to a mix of veterans and rookies to carry the load offensively, with the vet McKenzie (6G, 8A) leading the team overall with 14 points, and rookie Sheldon Dries leading the team with seven goals. McKenzie (2) and Dries (1) have also combined for three of the Stars’ seven overtime winners in the playoffs, with veteran Brian Flynn, and rookies Samuel Laberge, Joel L’Esperance and Roope Hintz also finding twine in extra time.
The two biggest keys to this series will be who wins the match up in net, and who wins the special teams battle. The Marlies and Stars come in with the second and third most lethal power plays in the playoffs, with the Marlies clicking at 23.4%, and the Stars at 22%. The ability to cash in when given the chance with the extra man will go a long way to deciding a series likely full of low-scoring contests.