TORONTO — A Canadian presence in the American Hockey League playoffs will only last as long as the Toronto Marlies do.
The defending Calder Cup champions are the lone Canadian team to qualify for the 2018-19 AHL post-season, with the three others coming up short.
The Belleville Senators, Ottawa's AHL affiliate, lost 4-2 against the Rochester Americans on the final day of the regular season Sunday and were eliminated from contention when the Cleveland Monsters beat the Marlies hours later. The Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens' affiliate) and Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets) were already out of the running.
The Marlies enter as the No. 3 seed in the North Division and begin their best-of-five first-round series against No. 2 Rochester on Friday, giving head coach Sheldon Keefe four full days of practice to prepare his club for a potential repeat.
"We recognize we've got a great challenge ahead of us here against a very good team, so we're going to have to make sure our game is as sharp and as good as it can be and really, we need to play our best hockey," said Keefe. "So that's really what the week is going to be about.
"It's going to be exciting to work this week to put together a plan and get out on the road and find a way."
The AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs has faced more adversity this season in comparison to 2017-18 when the Marlies set franchise records in wins and points en route to their first ever Calder Cup, and have felt a major overhaul to their roster since beating the Texas Stars last June in the AHL final.
Toronto had a league-high 57 players dress at least one game this season, and used a mishmash of lineups to get to this point.
Defencemen Justin Holl, Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin, forwards Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore and Frederik Gauthier and goaltender Garret Sparks were all part of a Game 7 win over Texas, but are currently on the Maple Leafs roster as the parent club faces the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With Sparks struggling with the Leafs for long stretches of the season, Keefe's squad lost starter Michael Hutchinson to a recall in early April and will likely go with Kasimir Kaskisuo and Eamon McAdam in goal when the puck drops Friday in Rochester.
"We're going to have to be really good in all areas of the game if we're going to compete against a team as deep and talented as this Rochester team is, one of the top teams in the league, and they get their lineup bolstered pretty good by Buffalo not making the (NHL) playoffs," said Keefe.
Toronto winger Jeremy Bracco finished second in AHL scoring this season with 22 goals and 79 points in 75 games, also setting a Marlies single-season record for points. Veteran centre Chris Mueller was next in team scoring with 33 goals and 65 points in 60 contests. Both were named league all-stars.
The Marlies went 15-5 in the post-season last year to capture the Calder Cup with Kyle Dubas in charge. With Dubas promoted to general manager of the Leafs this season, Laurence Gilman took over the minor-league club.
The only other Canadian NHL club with an AHL affiliate in the playoffs is the Edmonton Oilers.
The Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton's top farm club, face the Colorado Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Canadian Press