WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Almost one year ago, Colin Smith and his Toronto Marlies teammates traveled to the Mohegan Sun Arena to face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a matchup of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
On Wednesday, history will repeat itself as the Penguins and Marlies battle again as the top two conference teams. Except Smith gets to experience the contest from the other side.
Is there a difference?
“It’s exactly the same,” he said.
Wednesday’s game will mark the third straight season that the Marlies and Penguins have faced each other during the regular season as the conference’s top teams. All three of the contests will have been played at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
On Dec. 18, 2015, the Marlies beat the Penguins 4-3 in a shootout. Last season Toronto dominated with a 3-0 win.
The stakes are just as high for this season’s meeting. Both teams have a .750 win percentage. The Penguins are 6-0-0-1 in the last seven games, while Toronto is 7-3-0-0 in its last 10 contests and is in first place in the North Division.
Smith, who will have seen the conference battle from both sides, said there’s a lot of similarity between the two teams.
“They have a lot of depth and high-skilled players. They’ve been winning games and so have we,” he said.
So what’s the mindset for a player on either side going into a game between two of the AHL’s best?
For the Marlies last season, according to Smith, the game was viewed as a measuring stick.
“Even though it’s early in the year it’s a good indication of where you stand and how strong your record is,” Smith said. “We really wanted to be at our best.”
Penguins coach Clark Donatelli said his team is accustomed to facing the best of the best, as many of the AHL’s top squads are fellow Atlantic Division rivals. The list includes Charlotte, Lehigh Valley, Providence and Bridgeport — teams that the Penguins face multiple times each season.
The only difference, he said, is the Penguins face Toronto just twice during the season.
“When Toronto comes in, I don’t know if they’re any better but we know they’re a top team in the league,” Donatelli said. “We know they’re a good team, but we play a lot of good teams.”
• The Marlies have only allowed 25 goals — the second lowest total in the Eastern Conference. Garret Sparks is a big reason behind Toronto’s stingy defense, leading the league with a 1.44 goals against average and a .943 save percentage. Sparks has also lost just once in seven starts.
“We have to shoot the puck. We can’t be fancy,” Donatelli said. “We have to try to get some rubber on this kid.”
• Former Penguin Kasperi Kapanen, who was Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 2014 and appeared in a handful of games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before being traded to Toronto in 2015, was reassigned by the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Kapanen has three goals in six games for the Marlies this season.
“One more really good player that they have. They’re a deep team,” Donatelli said.
• Tom Kostopoulos is still day-to-day and is likely out through the weekend, Donatelli said. Troy Josephs practiced with the red no-contact jersey but isn’t expected back before the end of the month.
• Defenseman Zach Trotman was reassigned by Pittsburgh on Tuesday.