As is the annual practice, it's time for my playoff previews to begin. The OHL regular season wrapped up yesterday and the match-ups are set. Round one is set to kick off Thursday.
Last year I went 12-3. Maybe this is the year I go a perfect
Here are my thoughts on the opening round:
1. Kingston Frontenacs vs. 8. Oshawa Generals
Season Series: 7-1, Kingston
Analysis: This is obviously a very interesting matchup because of the Michael Dal Colle situation. Dal Colle faces his former Oshawa teammates, following his exit at the trade deadline. The Frontenacs, as you may have expected, dominated the season series. In particular, Michael Dal Colle has an astonishing 6 goals and 5 assists in only 3 games against his former club. Spencer Watson has also dominated the Generals this year, averaging nearly 3 points per game (19 in total). Obviously, it's important not to undersell Oshawa. They're one of the hottest teams in the OHL heading into the playoffs, after wrestling away the final playoff spot from Hamilton. But Kingston has just been too good this year and they're depth and experience should be too tough for Oshawa to overcome. A telling stat is Oshawa's very poor record on the road this year (11-19-2-2). If they hope to win this series, they'll have to win a few road games (likely), which seems far fetched. One other thing to watch is who plays goal for Kingston. Lucas Peressini is the reigning OHL Goaltender of the Year and he's the veteran, but Jeremy Helvig has been better this year (IMO) and completed dominated Oshawa in his three starts versus them this year. I will say that I love what Oshawa did this year and the pieces they added for the future. But I just can't see them beating Kingston.
Prediction: Kingston in 5
2. Barrie Colts vs. 7. Mississauga Steelheads
Season Series: 5-1, Barrie
Analysis: This is definitely not the match-up Mississauga wanted, but it is the one they got after they failed to beat Niagara in the final game of the regular season. Barrie represents a match-up nightmare for the Steelheads because of their depth offensively. While the Steelheads secondary scoring has been infinitely better the last couple of months, they don't have nearly as many game changers, nor the experience at the forward position. In the 6 games against Barrie this year, the McLeod, Bastian, Nylander line has scored nearly 50% of the team's goals, with their 2nd/3rd lines getting largely dominated. Obviously they'll need more from them in order to win this series. This is especially true when you consider the lack of experience Mississauga's top line has compared to the top 2 lines of Barrie. Another key for Mississauga is staying out of the box. Barrie's powerplay has operated at nearly 30% against Barrie this year. For Barrie, Mackenzie Blackwood will need to be good, but he was during last year's postseason so no concern there. Another interesting stat. Barrie set a new OHL record for shorthanded goals this year with 28. Mississauga allowed the 3rd most shorthanded goals in the league this year (11). They'll need to be more careful with the man advantage, especially with the four forward setup they often run. Bottom line, Mississauga is a good young team and I think they'll make a serious run next year. But I don't see them beating a very experienced Barrie team this year. The biggest fans of this news? Hockey Canada, who could then bring on Michael McLeod, Nic Hague, and Sean Day, should they desire for the U18's (ditto for Team Sweden and Alex Nylander).
Prediction: Barrie in 5
3. North Bay Battalion vs. 6. Peterborough Petes
Season Series: 2-2, TIE
Analysis: Two very evenly matched teams go head to head here. Peterborough enters as the underdog (as the lower seed), but they're actually the more experienced/mature team. Whether that plays into the result, remains to be seen. As is the case with any close match-up, I think it's important to break things down head to head. In goal, I give a slight nod to North Bay thanks to the vast amount of playoff experience for Jake Smith. He's tried, tested, and true in the postseason. On defense, you have to give the nod to Peterborough. Masin, Spencer, Prophet, and Jenkins are four OHL veterans and represent way more experience than North Bay has to offer at the position. Even if I love Cam Dineen, we have to remember he's still a rookie and he's playing key minutes. At forward, I think it's a wash. I like Peterborough's depth more, but I also strongly believe in Mike Amadio and his ability to take over games. That brings us to special teams, where North Bay has the advantage on both the powerplay and the penalty kill. Peterborough had the 2nd worst powerplay and worst penalty killing unit in the league. If you believe in the wisdom of Scotty Bowman, that spells trouble in the playoffs. Bowman believed that a team could only win in the playoffs if their special teams units were both Top 10 in the league. And I do agree with that. I think that with Jake Smith's experience in net, a team defense approach, Mike Amadio as the difference maker, and a strong special teams unit, North Bay will be victorious.
Prediction: North Bay in 6
4. Niagara IceDogs vs. 5. Ottawa 67's
Season Series: 3-1, Niagara
Analysis: You have to give it up to the 67's. Quite frankly, after the Konecny/Studnicka deal, I expected this team to struggle. But they've arguably been better since the deal, somehow. Niagara made some massive splashes on the trade market in the opposite way this year. While those trades have had inconsistent results thus far, the true test will be the playoffs. I think the one concern for Niagara is the health of their players heading into this series, in particular their defense. Vince Dunn has sat out the entire month of March with a wrist injury, while Aaron Haydon was recently injured and was apparently spotted in a cast at Sunday's Mississauga tilt. Losing those two would significantly weaken Niagara's defensive advantage over Ottawa. But word is they'll play. While Niagara's offensive depth is quite strong, Ottawa has recently been rolling two very hot lines thanks to the emergence of Artur Tyanulin as a go to goal scoring machine. The one thing that I think tips this series in Niagara's favor is Alex Nedeljkovic. While he's only been so-so thus far in Niagara, he's a big game goaltender (see his performance at this year's WJC's). Another thing that is critical for Niagara's success, is capitalizing on the powerplay. This season they're a woeful 2 for 17 with the man advantage versus Ottawa. This will be a hard fought series, and Niagara definitely needs to be healthy, but I think their depth and goaltending carry them to the 2nd round.
Prediction: Niagara in 6
1. Erie Otters vs. 8. Saginaw Spirit
Season Series: 2-2, TIE
Analysis: For whatever reason, the Saginaw Spirit have played the Erie Otters tougher than any other opponent this year and that's what makes this match-up interesting. On paper, it should be a blowout for the powerhouse Otters. In reality, who knows. In 4 games versus Saginaw this year, Dylan Strome, Alex Debrincat, Taylor Raddysh, and Travis Dermott have a combined 0 goals. One of reasons for that might be the play of goaltender Evan Cormier versus Erie this year, where he's been sensational. But obviously those big guns need to be better. And let's face it, they probably will be better. So how does Saginaw come up with the upset? They've got to limit Erie's powerplay chances (which they did in their 4 games against the Otters this year). They've got to continue to get strong goaltending from Cormier. They need to be better on the man advantage (0/13 versus Erie this year). And they need to continue to shut down Erie's top line. While I do think that this Erie team has the potential to be upset in this playoffs (based on their inconsistent play down the stretch), I ultimately don't think it will be Saginaw. Quite often, regular season match-up stats can be thrown out the window for the playoffs and I think that's the case here. I expected this Saginaw team to be better than they were this year, and I think they'll give Erie a scare, but that's it. Should make them a better team next year though.
Prediction: Erie in 6
2. Sarnia Sting vs. 7. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Season Series: 5-1, Sarnia
Analysis: This has the potential to be a very good series. Obviously Sarnia has to be considered the favourite, based on the way they've performed since loading up (Konecny, Studnicka, Graham) at the deadline. Experience is also heavily in Sarnia's favour, which can often make a huge difference in the postseason. But this Greyhounds team can not be underestimated. While young, they have a very balanced scoring attack. And they have a lot of high energy players (MacIntyre, Verbeek, Katchouk, etc) who could really make an impact in the playoffs. They also have experience in goal with Brandon Halverson, even if he has had a bit of an up and down season. As successful as Charlie Graham's career has been, he doesn't have much experience in the playoffs. He could be the real difference maker. Something else to weigh is the powerplay performances of these two teams in head to head match ups this year. The two teams have combined to go 3 for 37 on the powerplay against each other. Realistically, the team that gets their powerplay going could be victorious. While I'm a huge fan of what the Soo has done for building for next year and beyond, I think Sarnia takes this battle based on the impact that their high end talent makes (Konecny, Zacha, Mistele, etc), and based on their overall experience level. But it should be close.
Prediction: Sarnia in 7
3. London Knights vs. 6. Owen Sound Attack
Season Series: 4-2, London
Analysis: I wish I saw this series being closer, but I just don't. The Attack are a strong hockey club and they play hockey the right way. But this London team has been on an amazing roll the last few months, which allowed them to nearly steal the top seed from Erie. They've got three scoring lines rolling and this year (like most of the league), Owen Sound had a very difficult time shutting down the Marner/Dvorak/Tkachuk line (as they scored 10 goals in 5 games against the Attack this year). London also has the heavy advantage on special teams, especially in the head to head matchup. The only wild card I could see coming into play is in net. I'm a big fan of Michael McNiven and he has the potential to absolutely steal a series. But Tyler Parsons does have playoff experience from last year and he's been solid for London too. Again, love this Attack team and I have very high expectations of them for next year. But London is steamrolling right now and I can't see them being ousted in round one.
Prediction: London in 5
4. Kitchener Rangers vs. 5. Windsor Spitfires
Season Series: 3-1, Windsor
Analysis: By far the toughest series to predict in round one. Honestly, flip a coin. On paper, Kitchener's veteran laden line-up should have an advantage. But they've had trouble staying healthy all year and I feel like they never really gelled to the best of their capability because of that. Proof in the pudding lies with the fact that their best player of late has been sophomore Adam Mascherin. Meanwhile Windsor has been playing some great hockey of late as they've been getting more consistent performances from their younger stars like Logan Brown and Gabriel Vilardi. Goaltending is the big wild card of this series and could be the deciding factor. Windsor's Michael Dipietro has been one of the OHL's top 99's this year, but it's important to remember that he's still a 16 year old rookie. Windsor has done a great job of tempering his workload thus far, but it should definitely be a concern. Meanwhile Kitchener seems likely to start Luka Opilka, but he just hasn't looked the same since recovering from a mysterious illness. During the regular season matchup between these teams, Kitchener just didn't get the production they needed from their experienced guns (MacInnis, Bracco, Robinson, Franzen, Miller, Magyar). It's put up or shut up time for a Kitchener team which has been built for a major playoff run this year. So who do I predict to win? I think I have slightly more confidence in Windsor's ability to activate their defenders to push the pace of play. And I like Dipietro in the goaltending matchup. But it's damn close.
Prediction: Windsor in 7