Toronto Maple Leafs: How the Marlies Can Stay Alive

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 05: Toronto Marlies left wing Trevor Moore (9) and Toronto Marlies left wing Mason Marchment (20) celebrate as Toronto Marlies goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo (30) looks on following the 2019 American Hockey League Calder Cup North Division Finals game 3 between the Toronto Marlies and Cleveland Monsters on May 5, 2019, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, OH. Toronto defeated Cleveland 2-0. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 05: Toronto Marlies left wing Trevor Moore (9) and Toronto Marlies left wing Mason Marchment (20) celebrate as Toronto Marlies goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo (30) looks on following the 2019 American Hockey League Calder Cup North Division Finals game 3 between the Toronto Marlies and Cleveland Monsters on May 5, 2019, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, OH. Toronto defeated Cleveland 2-0. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

A Marlies loss tonight could force the Toronto Maple Leafs into watching a number of their top prospects get an early start to their offseason.

Entering into a pivotal Game Six matchup in foreign territory, Toronto Marlies are preparing to hit the ice tonight with their backs firmly up against the wall.

It’s a position that serves as a fitting metaphor for the team’s entire season. Now staring down the barrel of a 3-2 series deficit – with a pair of road dates versus the AHL’s top regular season challenger as their lone remaining hope at staying alive – the odds are about as slim as they get. And yet, the Baby Leafs soldier on. Exactly as they have done all year.

Nevertheless, full desperation mode has been activated for the Marlies at the moment. Just as it should be.

From Game Two onward, the Charlotte Checkers have completely neutralized a Marlies attack which, mere days ago, had previously carved through the first two rounds of the postseason without suffering so much as a single defeat. It was never easy, mind you. Those victories were a grind. But the Marlies were able to accomplish just enough, night after night, in order to pull through.

These days, “just enough” won’t cut it. Not in the Eastern Conference Final. And with their season hanging by a thread, and the prospect of summer vacation now only a few short hours away, Sheldon Keefe‘s squad desperately needs to adjust in order to hold on.

Let’s take a look at what that might look like.

Take Back the Neutral Zone

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most debilitating aspect of the Checkers thus far has been their utter dominance of the neutral zone. Fittingly, the team draped in red and white appears to be the Dead Puck Era New Jersey Devils incarnate, routinely stacking four bodies across open ice for the purpose of knee-capping their opponent in transition.

This strategy has crippled the Marlies throughout this series, effectively leaving them with no answer.

That’s a less-than-stellar development for a team whose transitional systems are so reliant on short outlet passes and controlled zone entries. The Marlies have been completely unable to establish any semblance of an on-the-fly offensive attack to this point. Instead, their repeated brick-wall encounters in middle-ice have goaded them away from adhering to their usual systems and into playing the dreaded chip-and-chase style their coach generally tries to shy away from.

Take the instance below, for example.

This is the type of transitional sequence that gave the Marlies an edge once upon a time.

When facing such intense pressure, the puck-holding defenceman in question would typically look for the streaking forward along the left side for a breakout, or to simply chip the puck off the boards in the hope that his forward recovers it before reaching the blueline.

It’s a safe, albeit high-percentage play – one that but guarantees a successful dump-in.

But the Marlies tend to operate differently.

Rasmus Sandin instead surveys the ice as a whole in this instance, rather than only what lies in front of him, and attempts to hit an in-stride Egor Korshkov up the right boards. Normally, the opposing defenders will have collapsed over to the side of the initial puck carrier by now, therein leaving a brief window of space through which Korshkov could trigger a controlled entry.

Charlotte, alas, has figured this out.

Take in for a moment the complete absence of room.

With four bodies swarming over to the right side, Sandin’s attempted outlet pass is intercepted by a Checkers defender before it can even reach Korshkov’s vicinity, and is then swiftly sent back into the Marlies end. Rinse and repeat. Over and over. The constant repetition of these neutral zone clogs is maddening – enough to eventually frustrate the Marlies into straying from their defined structure.

For this team to avoid an early exit, that simply can’t happen. The solution for this paramount problem lies, fittingly so, in the process by which these Marlies so closely adhere.

Short outlets and controlled entries are what has gotten the team this far. It won them a Calder Cup less than a calendar year ago, in fact, with many of those pieces still on the roster. For them to eschew their prior system in light of one team’s would be to go against this organization’s philosophy of trusting results in lengthy stretches over small samples.

The Marlies can dominate the neutral zone. They’ve proven as much, having broken through in scattered stretches throughout this very series. In a do-or-die game, trusting the process is how they take it back.

Controlling the Opposing Forecheck

When it comes to forechecks, Charlotte’s is an attack the likes of which these Marlies were yet to face in the lead up to this series. The Checkers come at you in waves, gradually wearing opponents down via relentless pressure before waiting to strike at the first sign of daylight.

The Marlies are but another victim of this suffocation thus far.

What drives the Checkers’ success in this area is their ability to prevent their opponent from gaining any sense of control. Charlotte is a team that weaponizes panic. They prioritize the elimination space and passing lanes over simple puck retrieval, therein allowing the play to come to them by way of opposing mistakes under pressure.

This sequence, taken from the first period of Game Four, illustrates exactly what I’m talking about.

Turnover #1 can be found in the clip above.

Roughly one second after regaining possession, two Checkers immediately begin to swarm around Timothy Liljegren in a danger area to the right of the slot. Time and space evaporate within an instant. And with no room in which to operate, Liljegren then lists a floating backhand into centre ice which, in all honesty, was never going to reach its intended target.

Possession is forfeited, and back into their own end the Marlies go.

Behold; Turnover #2.

Adam Brooks is the lucky Marlie to retrieve the dump-in this time, taking the puck behind his own net to survey the ice. He does so in an effort to give himself time. Only, that time quickly expires when a Charlotte forechecker enters the zone again and proceeds to clog Brooks’ lane to the right-handed Lljegren, eliminating what would have otherwise served as the Marlies’ best path to a breakout.

Forced to recalibrate, Brooks panics. And his attempted pass deflects off the forechecker’s stick into the slot in a matter of seconds, nearly turning a routine Marlies zone exit into a high-danger Charlotte scoring chance.

But wait, there’s more!

With the play now reaching a full breakdown, the Marlies are forced to improvise.

A second Charlotte forechecker drops down behind the goal line and, for a second time, Brooks forces a wobbly pass over the stick of the intended defender. All the while, the Checkers have managed to successfully change forward groups on the fly and send another wave back in, which now smothers Nicholas Baptiste as he attempts to carry the puck out of the zone himself.

Baptiste fails, and the only method of escape left becomes, you guessed it, to dump and chase.

It’s certainly easier said than done, but the Marlies must resist Charlotte’s ability to bait them into a panic. Their season hinges on it. In overthinking practically every play under pressure, this counterintuitive belief that they can outsmart their opponent leads the Marlies into ignoring the alternate lanes which sit open before them.

Brooks, for instance, had a perfectly capable defender in Sandin to his left who could have otherwise handled the ensuing breakout despite being on his off-hand. Sandin is perhaps the blueline’s most gifted puck mover. He’s proven as much throughout the playoffs. But Brooks forces it through traffic to Liljegren on the belief that, if he can thread the needle, Liljegren carries a better chance of transitioning the puck up the ice. Charlotte’s forecheck puts blinders on Brooks’ vision.

To advance, that cannot be allowed to happen.

Resuscitating the Power Play

As has been the case with many things this series, the Marlies’ previously-league-leading powerplay has now transitioned from its role as a once prized advantage into what has now become a glaring weakness. Toronto is a combined 3-for-20 (15%) on the man advantage throughout the first five games of the Conference Final, signalling a stunning drop-off from the 45% efficiency rate the team earned in the two rounds prior.

At this point, it appears as if nothing can get past the Checkers’ AHL-best penalty kill.

Double-dipping into our previous discussion regarding the neutral zone, Charlotte has managed to render any Marlie attempt at establishing an offensive-zone structure completely fruitless. They cannot hold possession, turning the puck over at the opposing blueline time after time while burning precious seconds off the clock as a result.

But the area in which Charlotte has succeeded the most when it comes to stifling the Marlies’ PP is how they’ve altered its composition.

The Marlies, straying from convention, run their power play from down low rather than up at the point, initiating the cycle primarily on the half wall. This begins and ends with Jeremy Bracco, whose tendency to curl down at the hash marks in search of a cross-ice feed once elevated the Marlies’ first unit into the stratosphere. Charlotte, in response to this, has focused the bulk of their efforts on neutralizing Bracco entirely, and to inarguable results.

They neutralize him in transition:

And they neutralize him when in formation:

This is a method that all but eliminates the presence of one of the Marlies’ foremost weapons. That would be successful enough on its own. However, its true value lies more in how it forces the Marlies into delegating their power play back up to the point, changing the face of their attack completely. With Toronto now operating via a different engine, Charlotte is able to focus intense pressure on the single Marlie defender who has been unexpectedly thrust into quarterbacking duties.

That, inevitably, can lead to this.

The clip above showcases one of the two (!!!) shorthanded goals Charlotte deposited in Game Five. Ignoring the late-game empty net marker, the Marlies ended up dropping that series-shifting contest by a difference of, you guessed it, two goals.

Rather than forcing the puck to the point like Charlotte wants them to, the Marlies must make a concerted effort to keep possession flowing through the bottom of the zone. Whether that means shifting Bracco farther down into the corner or tasking Trevor Moore with distributing the puck from behind the net, filtering the play through the point only succeeds in catching the Marlies’ defenders off guard and leaves them susceptible to odd-man rushes.

The kind which, as we’ve seen already, can sway an entire game.

Next. The Marlies Believe in Their Group. dark

These changes are subtle, but they can very well be enough to keep Toronto’s season alive.

All gifs courtesy of