Playoff hockey is finally here. Yes, it might not be for the Sabres, but nonetheless, this is an exciting time for the organization. If the just the sound of “playoffs” doesn’t get you fired up, knowing that Rochester is playing the Toronto Marlies should do it. After the promising 2017-18 season was abruptly ended in three quick games in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs at the hands of Syracuse, the Rochester Americans will look to redeem themselves and make a deep push in the playoffs.
As I said last week, the Amerks have all the tools for a deep run in the playoffs. They have an abundance of depth with their forwards, a combination of skill and grit from their defenseman and a solid goaltending tandem led by Scott Wedgewood who can make big saves when needed. Just think, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, widely considered one of the best goaltending prospects out there, is going to be considered the third goalie for Rochester.
Admittedly, I left out an important piece as Amerks Head Coach Chris Taylor has done a good job the entire year keeping the Amerks from dipping too low, even through the tough stretches of the season. That’s what good teams do. If they go through a tough stretch, they stop the bleeding and get back to their winning ways. Who knows, a good showing from the Amerks can have Taylor joining some of his players in Buffalo next year.
You know about the Amerks, but now it’s time to take a quick look into their opponents. I’ll dive into who some of the Marlies impact players are and how the Amerks can match up against them. First, lets start with the Marlies goaltending.
While the Maple Leafs are sticking with both Garrett Sparks and Michael Hutchinson as their backups to Frederik Anderson in their own first round matchup, one can assume Kasimir Kaskisuo (30 GP 3.07 GAA .896 S%) will be the Marlies’ starter tonight in Rochester. Of all the teams in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Toronto has the most goals against this season with 243. This tells me not only is their defensive coverage as a team can be spotty and they might not be getting timely saves to bail the team out.
With a deep, high powered offense like the Amerks have, sustaining pressure in the Marlies end for extended periods of time will breakdown their defensive coverage, hopefully providing Rochester with ample quality opportunities that find their way past Kaskisuo.
When it comes to the Marlies defense, they have plays like Timothy Lijegren, Rasmus Sandin and Jordan Subban as offensive defensemen, you know they will push the pace on the offensive end, but how good are they in their own zone? Especially against players like Thompson and Olofsson, will they be able to prevent those guys from getting their shots off in dangerous scoring areas? These are questions I can’t answer with certainty since I haven’t watched the Marlies play much, but I’m positive the following will be a focal point in the locker room.
Attack their defensemen. Make them play in their own end. Don’t give them the time and space to gather the puck and make plays. Force turnovers down low in the offensive zone and pounce on rebounds off quick shots from those turnovers. Ugly goals count just as much as the pretty ones.
As for the Marlies offense, Jeremy Bracco led the way with 79 points in 75 games in the regular season. He’s an undersized winger with a lot of speed and skill that the Amerks need to keep in check. They will also face playmaking veteran Chris Mueller who posted 65 points in 60 games and the continuously improving Dmytro Timashov who had 49 points in 72 games.
It’s not as if the Marlies don’t have depth and quality players that can and will chip in offensively, but I’d put my money on the Amerks having the better top-12 forwards over the Marlies’ in all the days ending in “y”.
When it comes to defending the Marlies forwards, over six games versus the Amerks this season, the Marlies averaged 2.83 goals per game. Locking up defensively both forwards and defense will ignite the attack I spoke of earlier. Make the simple, smart play that has the least likely chance of a turnover so you can let your forwards go to work.
When it comes to the team as a whole in the defensive end, keep your feet moving and don’t get caught in your own end. This is where penalties like hooking, holding and tripping can come back to haunt you. Obviously don’t take dumb penalties, trip a guy 200 feet away from your own net or throw an ill-advised elbow even if the games are getting intense.
I’m not saying any of the above have been an issue, but this is what I will be looking for in this series. If they have a good showing against the Marlies and advance to the second round, I believe the confidence from the fans will be a mixture of the relief over last year’s disaster and the confidence this team can play until June in the Calder Cup Finals.
There will be a familiar face on the opposing bench. Former Amerk Nic Baptiste will return to Rochester downing the blue and white. It’s been somewhat of a down year for Baptiste, he’s only registered 29 points in 73 games (55GP with Milwaukee and 18GP with Toronto), without seeing any NHL time since leaving the Sabres organization.
Predicting playoff series has never been a forte because hockey is a sport most effected by luck over any other major sport. It’s hockey, there are always underdogs taking down teams no one would have expected to lose *cough* Tampa *cough*. That being said, I don’t foresee that happening in this series unless the Amerks just come out flat and unprepared, which doesn’t sound likely according to Chris Taylor.
My prediction: Amerks win the series 3-1. I expect a big showing from The Son’s (Thompson and Olofsson), Zach Redmond and Scott Wedgewood. It’s time to rally around the Amerks, it’s playoff game day!