Calder Cup Final: Little Separates Stars & Marlies

While the Stanley Cup Final offered some excitement, a 4-1 series speaks for itself. Meanwhile, in the AHL, the Toronto Marlies and Texas Stars are locked in a 2-2 battle for the Calder Cup. Every game has been decided by one goal.

As the series goes deeper, the two teams’ dislike for one another is becoming more apparent as well. With a pivotal Game 5 looming Saturday in Texas, both teams will do some self-assessment on what they can to get the upper hand. For Texas, it’s been some familiar names leading the charge, while Toronto is still waiting for its own stars to shine in the final.

Veterans Leading Stars Offense

Texas has three holdovers from the squad that took home the 2013-14 Calder Cup, and they happen to play on the same line. Justin Dowling, Curtis McKenzie, and Travis Morin are no strangers to this stage, and have delivered for the Stars. Morin has a long history with the Stars, playing his ninth season with the organization. A league scoring champion in 2013-14, Morin sits tied with Dowling for the scoring lead in the final with six points in the first four games.

The Stars’ veterans produced Thursday on a night when the team needed it the most, factoring in all three goals. The 3-2 win helped the Stars avoid a 3-1 series deficit, and they’ll now look to take the lead on home ice. Dowling was the hero in Game 4, his redirection of a Matt Mangene shot midway through the third period broke a 2-2 tie and held up as the game-winner.

If the Stars want to win the series, they’ll need someone else to step up. Coach Derek Laxdal inserted the more offensive-minded Denis Gurianov into the lineup for Game 4 over Samuel Laberge. Gurianov played mostly with Brian Flynn and Roope Hintz, two players the Stars need to get going.

Travis Morin - Texas Stars
Travis Morin (Texas Stars Hockey)

Flynn is a veteran of 275 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens. He was third on the Stars in scoring during the regular season behind Morin and McKenzie. Flynn had posted a 6-6-12 stat line in 15 playoff games heading into the final, but only has one point in the series.

The rookie Hintz is a 2015 second-round pick of Dallas. This is Hintz’s first season in North America, and he really locked in to start the playoffs, racking up 11 points in the 15 games before the final. The big Finnish winger has created some chances but has been kept off the scoreboard.  Jason Dickinson and Sheldon Dries are also candidates to provide secondary scoring for the Stars. Dries had the lone goal for the Stars in Game 3.

Marlies Waiting on Young Top Line

The Marlies may be facing their first adversity in the Calder Cup playoffs. They were the league’s best team in the regular season, with a league-best goal differential of plus-84. Toronto was pushed to a deciding Game 5 against Utica in the first round of the playoffs, a game the Marlies won 4-0 on home ice. Toronto swept its next two opponents to get to the Calder Cup Final.

For the Marlies, their issue is the exact opposite of the Stars. Toronto’s top line has yet to arrive in the final. Andreas Johnsson, Miro Aaltonen, and late-season addition Carl Grundstrum have struggled to find the back of the net.

Grundstrom joined the Marlies after finishing the season in his native Sweden with Frolunda. A 2016 second-round pick, he quickly fit in with Aaltonen and Johnsson to form a dangerous top line. In this year’s final, the trio has combined for just three points in four games. Johnsson has been the team’s leading scorer through the playoffs despite missing four games.

The Stars are relying on veterans on their top line while the Marlies are a young group. Aaltonen is the oldest member of the Marlies’ first line at 24. It isn’t necessarily pressure the talented youngsters are up against as much as it’s just a veteran, tough Stars team. Since Game 1, goals haven’t been easy to come by. If the top line finds a way to provide a little offense, the Marlies have the advantage in this series.

Andreas Johnsson Toronto Maple Leafs
Andreas Johnsson (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto has the secondary scoring you would expect from a team that finished with the league’s best record. Veteran Ben Smith led the team in scoring in the regular season and has looked dangerous playing with Dmytro Timashov and Chris Mueller. Mueller has Calder Cup experience, as he was a part of the Stars’ 2013-14 championship run. Timashov picked up his first goal of the series in Game 4 and is a key to setting up the Marlies’ power play.

The series might come down to who steps up first. The Stars’ veteran top line is carrying the load against a talented and fast Toronto team. If the Marlies younger top line plays up to their capabilities, it will be a tough series for Texas to win. Game 5 in Texas could define the series. The final two games will be played in Toronto. If the Stars lose, it’s tough to see a scenario where they pull out two wins against the regular-season champs on their home ice.