'Scary' Marlies eye Calder Cup

Defenceman Jake Gardiner will anchor the Toronto Marlies blueline when they face the Rochester...

Defenceman Jake Gardiner will anchor the Toronto Marlies blueline when they face the Rochester Americans in the first round of the AHL playoffs, beginning Thursday night at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ont. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency file photo)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:49 PM ET

TORONTO - Who better than the farm boys to mend fences with Maple Leaf fans?

A week after the parent team cleared out of the Air Canada Centre with a fan mob in hot pursuit, the Toronto Marlies are taking the first step to backing management’s claim that all was not lost in a seventh straight losing season. When they step on the Ricoh Coliseum ice Thursday night against the Rochester Americans, the Marlies will give locals their first taste of playoff action in three years, as solid favourites in the best-of-five series.

Five of the Marlies’ projected starting 12 forwards are in their early 20s with some Leaf experience already under their belt, while this year’s top Leaf rookie, defenceman Jake Gardiner, will get an expanded April portfolio. One and possibly two additions to the Leaf blueline, Korbinian Holzer and Mark Fraser, will also be on display, while AHL-leading goalie Ben Scrivens tries to keep his profile high for more NHL duty next year.

“The next best thing to the Leafs making the playoffs would be the farm team getting on a run,” centre Nazem Kadri said at Tuesday’s practice. “We’re kind of the only hockey going on here right now and I know we have the whole city behind us. I think we’re going to have a good run. We have the depth here and everyone here is buying in. Those are the teams that are hardest to beat.”

As the Leafs look enviously upon the Ottawa Senators, they know a long Calder Cup run for the Sens’ Binghamton team last year paid huge dividends. The Sens not only rode the youth movement to an unexpected playoff spot, they’ve thrown a scare into the conference leading New York Rangers.

“That team in Bingo is the perfect example,” Kadri agreed. “The deeper we go, the more it will help everyone’s careers. Ottawa didn’t make the playoffs last year, but groomed their prospects and next thing you know, they make a big run and half the squad is with the big club.

“If you look at our roster on paper it’s pretty scary. Rochester will obviously do its homework and its scouting, but it might be a little intimidating, looking at the guys who’ve come back from the Leafs and the guys we had already. We have a lot of different elements, whether teams want to play us skilled, play us gritty or grind it out.”

Coach Dallas Eakins doesn’t disagree his team has the hammer this week, with home-ice advantage against a Buffalo Sabres’ affiliate it beat in seven of 10 meetings. But he also warned his team that priorities will change starting Thursday.

“We’ve given people second chances, we’ve stuck with them, we’ve tried to fix problems,” Eakins said. “Now it’s not so much about development anymore. It’s ‘this is how it’s going to be in the NHL.’

“You have a crappy shift early, you’ll probably find yourself on the bench early. It won’t be a pat on the back. We have a lot of depth and some hard decisions in the next 48 hours as to what starting lineup we put out there. Some guys who have played for us all year and played very, very well, will be sitting in the stands.”

Every game in the Rochester series was decided by a goal and the Amerks will be bolstered by the return of two forwards, NHL rookie of the month in March, Marcus Foligno, as well as Corey Tropp.

“I’m not going to get over-confident,” Scrivens said, “I’ve never been in the playoffs at this level. It can help (playing them 10 times), it can hurt. They’ve seen us the same amount, they’ve got to be comfortable playing us, too.”

Scrivens says the Marlies are ready for their close-up with fans.

“It’s good to see a lot of media here and hopefully more eyes on us. But with that comes the responsibility to perform. You look in the two years that I’ve been here at how many guys have come up to contribute in big ways with the Leafs. The list is long and deep.

“The longer you go, the fewer teams that are left, the more eyes are watching you, the more chances you make that (NHL) jump.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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