Dallas Eakins remembers the moment if he can’t quite place the date.
It was 1992 and the Marlies coach was in the second year a 15-year playing career that would see him manage 120 games in the NHL. He would touch down in 10 different American and International League towns: Baltimore, Binghamton, Chicago, Cincinnati, New Haven, Moncton, Winnipeg, Worcester and St. John’s.
“The playoff series I remember best was when I was playing for Moncton and we played the Fredericton Canadiens,” Eakins said.
“We just got into the playoffs. They finished in first place and we had two single overtimes and two double overtimes in our series. We ended up winning but the series was so intense most of their players and their coach wouldn’t shake hands with us. One of the few players who would was (former Leafs’ GM) John Ferguson Jr.”
That competetiveness, the ones that abuts hatred and then runs right on through, is Eakins’ dearest wish for his players. The Marlies, kings of the North Division, will open their playoffs next week but exactly when and against who remains a mathematical quagmire. They finish the season this weekend with two games in Abbotsford B.C. against the Heat. The first series of the playoffs will be a best-of-five affair with a best-of-seven format the rest of the way.
The Marlies have been supplemented with Jake Gardiner, the Leafs gifted rookie defenceman and wingers Carter Ashton and Matt Frattin. Two more former Leafs, Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr, have been down for a while.
Time with the big team, Eakins says, earns players a look but not a whole lot more.
“I look at Jake Gardiner the same way I look at Korbinian Holzer. I see Greg Scott the same way I see Matt Frattin. They have to battle and if they aren’t getting it done, I will look to someone else because I have other players who will do just as well in this league.”
“I don’t care if you are 21 years old or 38 years old, getting into the playoffs is a great learning experience. The games are different. I don’t’ see it as a five or seven -game series but as five or seven one-game series. Once you learn that you can use it for the rest of your career.”
To Eakins, the playoffs are a mystery built on blood.
“Championship teams have something that everyone else is trying to learn. ‘Should I talk? Should I not talk? Should I worry about staying out of the penalty box or should I try to be aggressive? How do you stay calm and still play ferociously?’ Until you’ve been through that process, you haven’t found that formula. It’s like it’s a secret that only the championship team gets in on.”
There is no failsafe way to predict whether players will sink or swim in choppy seas.
“Players will rise to it and some will disappoint you and you always will be surprised by who brings it up and who doesn’t,” he said.
That said, players whose body of work has been troubled by inconsistency, say Marcel Mueller instead of Ryan Hamilton, can right their season in the eyes of the boss with a couple of great weeks.
How you end is how you are remembered. That was a painful lesson to the Leafs sent down to play for the Marlies. They are the lucky ones, gifted with the chance to make that formula work for them.