So uncannily alike, the Toronto Marlies and Oklahoma City Barons must feel they are playing themselves as much as each other.
The Barons earned 99 points this season. The Marlies struck for 96.
The Marlies outscored the Bs by four goals, 217-214.
Toronto finished with 175 goals against, one piddly goal fewer than the Barons.
The Barons have won seven of nine playoff games to earn their pass to the final. The Marlies managed to win seven of eight.
“The lineup between the two teams is shockingly similar,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
“Two very successful teams who have been led by goaltenders having great years,” concurred Barons coach Todd Nelson.
The teams open the series Thursday in OKC. Game two will be played Friday with a two-day break before the series resumes for Game 3, Monday. Two days later the teams will play Game 4 at the Ricoh Coliseum.
Like the Leafs, the Barons have players who figure to push for NHL jobs next fall. Twenty-three year old centre Mark Arcobello is in that group. Likewise for 21-year-old Tyler Pitlick. Rugged winger Teemu Hartikainen played 22 games with the Oilers this year and looks ready for the jump. Twenty-one-year-old Magnus Paajarvi was a 10th overall pick in 2009 and is a big talent.
For the first time this playoff, the Marlies don’t enjoy a big gap in top-end talent. Toss in experienced goalies in 25-year-old Ben Scrivens (1.61 goals against, .944 save percentage in this playoff) and Yann Danis (2.02, .911) and the matchup becomes more intriguing.
The Marlies will be led by the line of Nazem Kadri between Jerry D’Amigo and Matt Frattin. The three have combined for more than half the team’s goals (14 of 27) with D’Amigo’s six goals good for a three-way share of the post-season goalscoring lead.
Assuming rock-solid goaltending, the series will veer toward OKC if they can contain the Marlies big unit.
The key, then, becomes Kadri who is enjoying an excellent post season with three goals and eight points in eight games.
Kadri recorded 41 points in 44 regular-season games with the Marlies. Eakins moved Kadri back to centre after long stretches on the wing and the 21-year-old has responded.
“The thing that he brings is every time he steps over those boards he’s a real danger to score,” Eakins said. “I don’t care if he is using his wingers, he may be able to beat you with a pass or he may turn you inside out and make them (defenders) look foolish. Those are the things we need from Naz but he’s made great strides managing the puck, he’s better in his own zone.”
“I like it. I’m a natural centreman,” Kadri said of the change. “I think it lets me use the creative side of my game a little more. You can freewheel a little more than when you are on the wall.”
The Leafs will use shutdown defenders Korbinian Holzer and Mark Fraser against the top OKC unit of Josh Green, Paajarvi and Hartikainen. The Barons, naturally enough, will have their most consistent defender, Dylan Yeo, out against the Kadri line.
The OKC attack will come from all angles. Thirteen of the 20 skaters used in the Barons’ first two series scored and each had at least a point. The Barons struggled when down a man, their penalty killing, terrific all season, sagged in the second round and only delivered on 65 per cent of the kills.
Put it all together and it looks like a push.