CHARLOTTE, N.C.– The Charlotte Checkers have been the best team all season, but they now face the defending champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Final. Toronto’s postseason experience was on display in game one.
The Marlies have now made five appearances in the conference finals in the last eight years, going 2-2 in their first four tries. Toronto advanced to the Calder Cup Final in 2011-12 as well as last year, falling to the Norfolk Admirals before defeating the Texas Stars for the title a season ago.
Charlotte, meanwhile, finished with a league-best 110 points in the regular season but is making only its second-ever trip this deep into the AHL’s postseason. The Checkers made it all the way to the East Final in their inaugural season of 2010-11, bowing out to the eventual champion Binghamton Senators in four games.
The advantage in experience stood out on Friday, as Toronto calmly went about its business and played a near-perfect road game. The Marlies shut down the vaunted top line of the Checkers, got excellent goaltending, made the right calls strategically, and capitalized on a key two-man advantage in the second. You can’t draw it up much better than that.
Charlotte, on the other hand, looked sloppy and a step slow compared to what was on display in the first two rounds. Passes were off, positioning was off, and the chemistry that has led to the Checkers explosive offense was nowhere to be seen. Credit Toronto for locking it down defensively, but Charlotte was also just off its game. It happens, you just can’t expect to beat a team the caliber of Toronto when it does.
The first period went the way of Charlotte except for one key thing: they couldn’t find the back of the net. The Checkers held a 13-8 edge in shots after 20 minutes, but Marlies tender Kasimir Kaskisuo was perfect between the pipes. Charlotte was unable to take advantage of its time in the Toronto zone, allowing the visitors to slowly gain more and more confidence as the period went on. Not that the Marlies weren’t confident going in, but getting through the opening frame unscathed certainly helped.
Toronto was able to adjust between periods and looked like a much crisper squad for the remainder of the game, outshooting Charlotte 20-14 over the final two frames. The second period started with the puck in the Checkers zone for the majority of the opening five minutes, eventually leading to a huge five-on-three opportunity for the Marlies. It started with a tripping call on Julien Gauthier 4:22 in. Then, 57 seconds later, Patrick Brown was nailed for delay of game after his clearing attempt sailed all the way into the netting above the opposite goal.
This was a pivotal moment in the game, and Toronto bench boss Sheldon Keefe knew it. He used his only timeout to gather the troops for a tactical briefing while allowing his top guns to rest at the same time. The move paid off in spades, as 5:50 into the middle stanza the Marlies broke the ice.
The Marlies looked like a team on a mission out of the timeout, coming close twice before cashing in on their third golden chance of the advantage. The goal came with 14:10 left in period two, as Jeremy Bracco carried the puck to the point before dropping back to a circling Dmytro Timashov. Timashov was given about a week and a half to walk down to the low slot and wire a shot over the shoulder of a screened Alex Nedeljkovic and into the top corner to make it 1-0 Toronto. It was a great display of patience and accuracy by Timashov, but the Charlotte coverage was atrocious. The passing lanes were taken away, sure, but so was the vision of Nedeljkovic preventing him from tracking the shot. You can’t allow a guy to just waltz in and get a grade-a chance like that with absolutely no pressure on the shot.
The momentum was all in favor of Toronto, but Charlotte was not ready to concede anything. The equalizing effort came just moments after a great chance for the Marlies to double their lead. Toronto got a little too cute on a three-on-two, and Trevor Carrick was able to block a spinning behind-the-back pass to spring a rush the other way.
Carrick sent it up to Gauthier, who carried the puck into the zone and dropped it to a trailing Haydn Fleury cutting to the top of the slot. Fleury used a quick toe- drag to elude the stick of a defender before ripping a wrister through the five-hole of Kaskisuo to level the score at one and one with 7:53 left in period two. It was the first goal of the playoffs for Fleury, and it came in his first appearance of the year in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He had spent the first two round up in Carolina but was returned when Charlotte’s NHL affiliate was eliminated Thursday night.
The score held at one each into the final frame, but less than a minute in Toronto regained the lead for good. The goal came 57 seconds into the third, as the puck came out of pile along the near boards to Timothy Liljegren at the point. Liljegren spotted an opening and sent a quick shot-pass into the low slot that Mason Marchment was able to redirect past Nedeljkovic to make it 2-1 for the visitors with 19:03 to play.
Toronto locked it down from there with expert precision, as Charlotte had very few quality chances in the third. The Marlies took away the middle of the ice and forced the Checkers to take shots from the perimeter, with most offerings blocked by a defender before they could test Kaskisuo. The best chance came after Tomas Jurco danced around a defender to set up a shot down low for Fleury, but he missed over the top of a yawning cage to the dismay of the Charlotte crowd.
Nedeljkovic was pulled for the extra man with just under two minutes to play, but Charlotte wasn’t able to generate much with the extra man. A timeout was called after an icing with 1:23 on the clock, but that didn’t help either. The Marlies never appeared closes to cracking, and time expired with the visitors claiming a 2-1 win. Toronto now leads the best-of-seven series one game to none.
What it means for Toronto going forward:
The Marlies have secured at least a split from the first two games in Charlotte, stealing home-ice advantage from the Checkers. Toronto executed very well on Friday, specifically in the coverage of Charlotte’s talented trio of Andrew Poturalski, Morgan Geekie, and Aleksi Saarela. All three came into the series with double-digit point totals through eight playoff games, but the Marlies held them to just three combined shots in game one. The defense of the Marlies was beautiful to watch, and if they continue to play with such poise they will be very tough to beat.
Toronto also held the advantage in the key categories of goaltending and special teams in game one, going 1-for-2 with the man advantage and getting 26 saves from Kaskisuo. Kaskisuo is now 8-0 with a .950 save percentage and 1.49 goals against average to start the playoffs, all best amongst goalies who have played more than one game in the second season. He continues to guide the Marlies from the net out, taking the pressure off the offense and covering for the defense when they make a rare mistake.
Add to this Toronto’s proficiency on the power play, and you have the recipe for a deep Calder Cup run. The Marlies cashed in on the first half of their two-man advantage Friday, and are now a scorching 40% (10-for-25) on the power play in the playoffs. Toronto has picked apart the opposition with the man advantage, providing plenty of goal support for Kaskisuo and the d-corps.
The Marlies now have chance to grab complete control of the series with a win in game two on Saturday. If Toronto can take a two-games-to-none lead back north to Ontario they would force Charlotte to win two-of-three away from home in order to get the series back to North Carolina for a sixth game. Expect the experienced Marlies to come out hungry and play with the same poise and confidence they displayed in game one. This is a smart, focused, talented team, and they have been here before. Toronto has everything in front of it for the taking again this year.
What it means for Charlotte going forward:
Charlotte is now behind the eight ball for the first time this postseason, knowing a win in the next game is critical. The Checkers need to refocus and respond immediately, as the Marlies have shown they will lock it down if given a lead. Charlotte can lock it down as well, however, and must strike first in order to force Toronto to play from behind this time. The Checkers are 6-0 when scoring first in the playoffs, but are now just 1-2 when falling behind first. The opening goal on Saturday will be huge, expect Charlotte to come out aggressively and look to break through early in game two.
Charlotte also needs to get production from its top line; three shots between the trio are not good enough. Mixing the lines a bit and spreading the wealth around could help generate offense, as Gauthier and Jurco each helped set up the offense with great vision and passing on Friday. Switching Saarela and Jurco on the left wing could be just what is needed to breathe life into the Charlotte attack. The passing and communication need to return to what was on display through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs.
Charlotte will also need Nedeljkovic to continue to play well, and for his defense to tighten up in front of him. Nedeljkovic was 26-of-28 in game one and had little to no chance on both goals against. The defense was good, but they slipped on their coverage on both Toronto goals. The Checkers must stop leaving guys open in the slot, and remember to take away shooting lanes as well as passing lanes.
Protecting the ice inside Bojangles’ Coliseum is critical now, as losing game one puts serious pressure on Charlotte to make the proper adjustments overnight and come out strong in game two. The Checkers will be keen to get back on the ice and even the series at two before heading to Canada. That chance comes immediately, with faceoff coming tonight at 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT from Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte.
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