As is the annual practice, it's time for my playoff previews to begin. The OHL regular season wrapped up yesterday (after Mississauga and Sudbury played a rescheduled game) and the match-ups are set. Round one is set to kick off Thursday.
Last year I went 10-5. Maybe this is the year I go a perfect 15-0?
Here are my thoughts on the opening round:
1. Peterborough Petes vs. 8. Niagara IceDogs
Season Series: 3-1, Peterborough
Analysis: As much as I hated to see Stan Butler's playoff streak come to an end in North Bay, I'm definitely happy to see the IceDogs make the playoffs. They're a young team who has done a fantastic job with their rebuild. The Dogs got better and better as the season went on and they are an exciting team to watch. Unfortunately for them though, they draw the Petes in a 1 vs. 8 matchup. Peterborough has the advantage in pretty much every facet of the game. The only area that's remotely close is in net where Stephen Dhillon has been a revelation for the team as the busiest man in the OHL. I can see him stealing a game for the Dogs on their home ice. Otherwise, the young Dogs will be overmatched by the depth and experience of Peterborough. In particular, I think Peterborough's strong team defense approach will play well in the playoffs. You know, the old adage "defense wins Championships." As an interesting side story, Christopher Paquette gets to go up against his former team in this one.
Prediction: Peterborough in 5
2. Mississauga Steelheads vs. 7. Ottawa 67's
Season Series: 2-2, Tie
Analysis: Season series was a tie, but it's deceiving and why head to head records can often be worth a grain of salt when trying to predict the playoffs. The Steelheads and 67's played 3 out of 4 before the new calendar year. The only one played after the deadline, a 6-1 Mississauga victory in late January. Like Niagara, I love what Ottawa has done with this rebuild. They will be a great team in a few years. In particular, that young defense is going to be one of the strongest in the league in two years. The problem is...it's one of the weakest in the league right now and the Steelheads are an offensive juggernaut. The size, speed, skill, and experience of Mississauga's top three lines is going to pose a massive problem for an Ottawa defense that lacks experience and composure. The one wild card is obviously the Steelheads' goaltending situation, which started off the year very poorly. But the second half has seen improved play from rookie Jacob Ingham, and especially, overager Matt Mancina. While I'm not convinced it will hold up to the test in the later rounds, it will be good enough for them to put their foot down on the 67's.
Prediction: Mississauga in 4
3. Oshawa Generals vs. 6. Sudbury Wolves
Season Series: 2-2, Tie
Analysis: Another series where you can throw the season matchup stats out the window. These two teams last played on November 13, 2016. The Generals are a vastly different team since then, and to a certain degree, so are the Wolves. Let's start in goal where the Generals have the clear advantage. Jeremy Brodeur has consistently been one of the league's best this year and as an overager, he has the experience to not be overwhelmed by the increased pressure of the playoffs. Jake McGrath has flashed some pretty fantastic potential in this league, but he's not yet at that level. Defensively, I think the Generals also play more effectively. Their forwards are all committed two-way guys and I don't think you can say that about Sudbury. At forward, I think things are relatively equal. Sudbury does have the size advantage up front though, with guys like Sokolov, Carson, Pezzetta, Dunda, etc. So where does that leave us? I think the powerplay will really go a long way to deciding this series. Both team's excel on the penalty kill, but struggle with the man advantage. Whatever team can get their powerplay rolling might be the one who takes this series. I'll go with Oshawa here because I feel more confident that their experience and defensive advantages will give them the edge.
Prediction: Oshawa in 6
4. Kingston Frontenacs vs. 5. Hamilton Bulldogs
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: This is the one series in the East that I'm most excited to see the outcome of. We've got the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference going up against one of the best offensive teams. Which will win out? For as good as Kingston has been as a defensive unit this year, I'm worried that their lack of ability to put the puck in the net will prevent them from taking this series. Kingston only had 3 forwards score more than 15 goals this year. Meanwhile, Hamilton had 6 20+ goal scorers. And their 3rd line ain't so bad either with Studenic and Entwistle. Hamilton's goaltending will have to be better, no doubt about it. Dawson Carty was brought in to handle these games as a guy with playoff experience and he needs to step up. Kingston, on the other hand, is going to need more from every forward not named Jason Robertson. At the end of the day, I like Hamilton's experience advantage and depth to help them win out here. When this team is firing on all cylinders, they've proven to be one of the best in the OHL and the playoffs should bring out the best in their game.
Prediction: Hamilton in 6
1. Erie Otters vs. 8. Sarnia Sting
Season Series: 3-1, Erie
Analysis: No offense meant to Sarnia, but I just can't see them climbing this mountain. The Sting bring a ton of energy and offensively, they're a solid team. But defensively, they don't have the guns to fight off a relentless Otters' attack. In order for a team to upset one of these Western Conference juggernauts, they're going to need a goaltender to steal the show. The Sting don't have that, no offense meant to Fazio and Hughes. And while I do worry about Erie's goaltending as we move into the later rounds (like Mississauga), they won't need Timpano to stand on his head here. Debrincat, Strome, and Raddysh could combine for 30+ points in the four games I expect this series to go.
Prediction: Erie in 4
2. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 7. Flint Firebirds
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: The Greyhounds probably would have felt a lot more comfortable playing any of the other three lower seeds than the Firebirds in round one, who have played them exceptionally tough all year. Even though it isn't SSM's style, I think we're going to see a real shootout type of series with some seriously high scoring games. Expect a lot of 6-5, 5-4 type wins here. I'm really curious to see who the Hounds go with in net. Matt Villalta has played a lot lately, but I do wonder if they'll turn to Raaymakers because of his experience. I think two things ultimately tip this in SSM's favour. The first is the team's depth at forward. They can roll three terrific lines who bring speed, tenacity, and skill and Flint's young(ish) depth players could have trouble keeping up. And second, the Hounds have the advantage on special teams, which are crucial for success in the playoffs. I've got more confidence in the Hounds' ability to kill off that late game penalty than I do the Firebirds. But this one will be closer than people think IMO.
Prediction: Sault Ste. Marie in 6
3. Owen Sound Attack vs. 6. Kitchener Rangers
Season Series: 7-1, Owen Sound
Analysis: The Attack finally seem to be getting the respect they deserve of late from the main stream media. The 2nd half that they put together was absurd (can count their losses on one hand and best record in the league since the trade deadline). While a lot of people are pointing to the team's first line (Suzuki, Gadjovich, and Hancock) as the catalysts, I think it all starts in net. Michael McNiven is a shoe in for goaltender of the year (at least he should be) and he'll look to rebound after struggling mightily in last year's playoffs. He's been unbeatable lately and I don't think the Rangers have the depth or firepower to truly test him. Meanwhile, the Attack will be able to capitalize on a banged up and inexperienced Rangers' blueline and inconsistent goaltending. I expect this one to be about as close as the season series.
Prediction: Owen Sound in 4
4. London Knights vs. 5. Windsor Spitfires
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: THE series of the first round as we've got the defending Memorial Cup champions against the current Memorial Cup hosts. Let's break this down by team. First London. I think that this team has been slightly disappointing since the big splashes made at the deadline. The Knights' just haven't gelled the way many expected they would and it almost appears that there are too many cooks in the kitchen some nights. In order for London to take home the West (they're 7-15 against the other top 4 teams in the Conference), they're going to need the veterans on the team to get everyone on the same page. The Knights also need to stay out of the box. Windsor has one of the top powerplays in the league and they operated at an astounding 30% against the Knights in the regular season. Alright, now Windsor. First and foremost, this team needs to be healthy. They've battled injuries all year and they need a guy like Logan Brown to be 100%. Secondly, they need more from veterans like Sergachev, Jeremy Bracco, Graham Knott, and the aforementioned Brown. No offense meant to Gabe Vilardi, but if he's the best player for Windsor in the series, I don't think they're likely to win. The real matchup here is in net. Parsons vs. Dipietro. Two kids who have the ability to steal games, and steal series' for their teams. A prediction...well I have this feeling that Windsor will finally show up as a team many felt were the best team in the league coming into the year. That said, I just can't rule out a Knights' team that has the edge in playoff experience and who has a goaltender who already stole a WJC Championship for his team this year. Dale Hunter has shown in the past to have a profound ability to get the most out of his team in the playoffs; an ability to get them to by in when it counts the most. I'm going with London in what should be one hell of a series.
Prediction: London in 7
So...what are you predictions for round one?