Calder Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Charlotte Checkers and Toronto Marlies have been on a collision course to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals since the Calder Cup Playoffs began. These two teams have breezed through the first two rounds with a combined 14-1 record.

The Checkers swept the Hershey Bears in the Atlantic Division Final while the Marlies needed just four games to bounce the Cleveland Monsters from the North Division Final. Toronto won three of the four regular-season meetings against the Checkers, with two of those victories coming in overtime.

Checkers Outlook

Regular Season Scoring Leaders

Goals – Aleksi Saarela (30)

Assists – Andrew Poturalski (47)

Points – Poturalski (70)

Postseason Scoring Leaders

Goals – Saarela (6)

Assists – Poturalski (8)

Points – Poturalski (13)

The Checkers getting to the Eastern Conference Finals should not come as much of a surprise. They won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for the most points in the league during the regular season. They head into their matchup with the Marlies outscoring their opponents 33-16 in their eight postseason games.

They have been using the same recipe for success in the playoffs as they did in the regular season. Saarela and Poturalski have been leading the way offensively. The duo has combined for 11 goals and 23 points in the postseason after combining for 124 points during the regular season.

Saarela scored five goals in the final two games of the series against the Bears, including a hat trick in Game 4. “We’ve got to win eight more games and we need everybody,” he said after advancing on the third round. “Part of my job is to score goals, so I’ve just got to keep going, keep working hard and earn that confidence too.”

On the back end, Bobby Sanguinetti has been huge for the Checkers. After just one goal and four points in 28 regular-season games, Sanguinetti is second among all AHL defensemen with six assists in the playoffs.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

Bobby Sanguinetti has been a major contributor for the Checkers this postseason. (Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

Alex Nedeljkovic has started seven of the Checkers’ eight playoff games and has gone 6-1. He has posted a 2.26 goals-against average (GAA) and .916 save percentage (SV%). The defense has done a good job ahead of him by allowing just 23.8 shots on goal per game in his starts.

Head coach Mike Vellucci, who is in his second year behind the Checkers’ bench, knows that a big challenge lies ahead with the Marlies.

“They’re good and their power play is going to be a lot better, so our penalty kill is going to have to be even better,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough series because I know they’re really good and they’re experienced. We’re going to have a tough test for ourselves.”

Marlies Outlook

Regular Season Scoring Leaders

Goals – Chris Mueller (33)

Assists – Jeremy Bracco (57)

Points – Bracco (79)

Postseason Scoring Leaders

Goals – Adam Brooks/Mueller (5)

Assists – Bracco (9)

Points – Bracco (11)

The defending Calder Cup champions finished the regular season in third place, but they have cruised through the North Division playoffs. After sweeping the Rochester Americans in the first round, they improved their postseason record to a perfect 7-0 with a sweep of the Monsters.

The Marlies have outscored their opponents 27-11 in their seven games. Much like the Checkers, Toronto is being led offensively by the same duo that did the most damage during the regular season. Bracco and Mueller have 20 total points during the playoffs after combining for 144 regular-season points.

They have also been very disciplined by taking just 55 penalty minutes, which is nothing compared to the 161 penalty minutes the Checkers have been assessed with. Toronto has nine power-play goals in 23 chances for a 39.1 conversion percentage, so Charlotte may want to stay out of the box.

The Marlies have 11 players on the current roster who played for them during last season’s run to the Calder Cup. One player who was not part of the 2018 title is goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo. He has played very well in his second playoff stint by putting up a 1.56 GAA and .949 SV% in his seven starts.

Kasimir Kaskisuo, Toronto Marlies
Kasimir Kaskisuo is a huge reason why the Marlies are back in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Jess Starr/ The Hockey Writers)

“There’s some of that at play for sure but at the same time, you look at our defense and they might be the least experienced defense that you’ve ever seen at this time of the playoffs,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said about defying expectations. “I think it’s a combination of experience and hunger and just group cohesion. The group wants to compete, wants to get better. We’re backed by strong goaltending that gives us a lot of confidence. There’s a lot of things that have fallen into place for us to be the first team that is waiting for the conference finals.”

Series Schedule

Fri., May 17 — Game 1 – Marlies @ Checkers — 7:00 p.m. EST

Sat., May 18 — Game 2 – Marlies @ Checkers — 6:00 p.m. EST

Tues., May 21 — Game 3 – Checkers @ Marlies — 7:00 p.m. EST

Thurs., May 23 — Game 4 – Checkers @ Marlies — 7:00 p.m. EST

Fri., May 24 — *Game 5 – Checkers @ Marlies — 7:00 p.m. EST

Sun., May 26 — *Game 6 – Marlies @ Checkers — 7:00 p.m. EST

Tues., May 28 — *Game 7 – Marlies @ Checkers — 7:00 p.m. EST

*If necessary