Toronto Maple Leafs: The Marlies Believe in Their Group

“Trust the Process”. It’s the mantra on which the Toronto Maple Leafs and, by extension, the Toronto Marlies operate.

As their entire season now hinges upon the possibility of stealing back-to-back road games against the AHL’s most dominant opponent, the Toronto Marlies could easily look at their current predicament and feel a sense of satisfaction.

A reaction of the sort would be completely natural, really. This is a team that few expected to survive even the first round back in mid-April – as injuries and personnel loss managed to significantly deplete their roster prior to the playoffs – let alone make it this far.

These Marlies, however, defied the odds, collectively rising to the occasion in stunning fashion.

Suddenly, a goaltender whose own prior struggles had once actively hampered the development of Toronto’s young prospects turned into an unstoppable force. A top defence pairing whose oldest member just celebrated his 20th birthday less than a month ago became unflappable. And, perhaps most importantly, a coach who had become so accustomed to the role of Goliath successfully coerced his group into embracing their place as David.

Twelve games, two rounds, and two sweeps later, the Marlies now sit deep into a hard-fought the Eastern Conference Final having accomplished more than nearly anyone ever saw necessary.

But that is not good enough. Not to this group.

Reeling in the aftermath of Friday’s back-breaking 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Charlotte Checkers, which now pushes Sheldon Keefe‘s squad to the brink of elimination, a sense of contrite calm permeated the air. Of course, the fatigue of playing three games in four days likely played a factor in this for the beleaguered Marlies. But during an instance when stick-smashing and expletive-tossing would have not only been expected, but entirely understood, the team’s focus was instead directed solely on what comes next.

“We’ve just got to stick to our process,” Trevor Moore told reporters post-game.

“That’s really something we preach a lot here. I know you guys hear it a lot, but it’s true. We have to play our game. If we play our game, we can win one game, and go win two in Charlotte. It’s a place we’ve played well in and I think we can do it again.” 

This aforementioned “Process” has served as the driving force of the Marlies for the past four years. It’s a motto they live by – never allowing circumstances to launch them too high or drop them too low. But what accompanies this ascription to their mantra is a further understanding; that process necessitates struggle.

Right now, the Marlies are struggling. Regression has hit this team HARD in recent days after a pair of early-round sweeps, and seemingly all at once, too. Their backs are firmly up against the wall. And if the Marlies indeed intend on keeping their season alive past Monday’s Game Six, desperation must turn into a collective faith that the pendulum will eventually swing the other way.

The team appears to be due for it, at least.

Carrying a league-leading power play into the opening game of this series, the Marlies have since gone 3-for-20 (15%) on the man advantage up against Charlotte’s vaunted penalty kill, even surrendering two shorthanded goals in the process, as well. While Kasimir Kaskisuo‘s dazzling .949 save percentage topped that of all postseason netminders throughout the prior two rounds, the 25-year-old has put forth a .895 over the series’ four games to this point, which now drops his overall total a full 10 percentage points down to .931. Moreover, the previously steadfast top pairing of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, who had solidified a banged-up back end in rounds past, are now succumbing to the mistakes most generally associate with players their age.

Case in point; what was once an advantage has now been turned into a weakness.

That is what teams as dominant as Charlotte tend to do to their opponents when performing on hockey’s biggest stage. But even in the face of these pitfalls – and such poorly-timed ones, at that – the Marlies are yet to waver.

Their coach won’t let them.

“I think it’s just an unfortunate play,” explained Sheldon Keefe when asked for his thoughts on Sandin’s second-period giveaway which resulted in the first of two Checkers shorthanded goals.

“…We’ve got a player here, I think he’s turned 19 now, but he’s in his 18-year-old season and we played him 30 minutes tonight. It’s a lot to ask from him. And because of guys like him, that’s why we’re playing this time of the year”

“So, we’ll shake that off” 

Again; a sense of calm. In a moment when Keefe could have otherwise expressed frustration with the mistakes of his young defenceman, Toronto’s bench boss chose instead to base his response not on Sandin’s lone instance of failure, but on his lengthy resume of success, instead.

Process over results. It’s how Keefe’s squad – with a roster bearing a collection of players who have never experienced postseason elimination at the AHL level – prepares to look ahead.

The Marlies have not been eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs since 2017. Over a calendar year, if you will. And while they have indeed faced do-or-die scenarios as recently as last year, those came only in the form of a Game Seven. (Or Game Five, thanks to the AHL’s best-of-five first round)

How will this group respond to such a strikingly foreign situation?

“We’re going to find out,” answered Keefe.

“But I believe in our group. I think we have to stay positive here. We’ve got to go out and win one game on the road. We’ve played very well on the road as a team, and we’ve played very well in Charlotte. We’re very comfortable there. So, there’s no reason for us to panic or anything like that. We’ve got to settle in and win a hockey game.”

The gravity of the Marlies’ current circumstance is not lost on their coach, at all. On the contrary, in fact, Keefe even believes that his team can thrive within it.

“At this point, it’s a tough task ahead. We know that. But we believe in our group. I think we’re going to have a good travel day tomorrow. We’ll get down there, we’ll get settled in, and we’ll get excited to play what I expect to be our best game of the series” 

“Our guys don’t want to go home” 

If the Marlies can channel that belief into an on-ice product, they won’t have to.

Thanks for reading!

All stats courtesy of TheAHL.com