Conference Finals kick off tonight in Hamilton with the Eastern Conference getting first kick at the can. Quite frankly, no real upsets yet, although the last round gave us a few close calls. Kitchener and Sarnia was always going to be a toss up, but I think most expected Hamilton, Kingston, and the Soo to be part of the final four.
If you recall, my opening round preview was completed for McKeens Hockey, and you can find that here. Went a perfect 8-0 in my first round predictions and 3-1 in my second round predictions making me 11-1 so far.
Here's are my Conference final previews:
1. Hamilton Bulldogs vs. 3. Kingston Frontenacs
Season Series: Hamilton leads 4-2
Analysis: No offense meant to all the other series that have already played or will be played in the future. This is the match-up that I've truly been looking forward to. Two extremely well matched, veteran laden teams. Hamilton took the season series that saw 4 out of 6 games decided through overtime or shootout. And 5 out of 6 were decided by one goal. Talk about intensity. Up front, I think it's a toss up. Kingston's size with the likes of Vilardi, Jones, Robertson, etc could certainly work to tire out Hamilton's defense. But Hamilton has just as much depth, if not more in terms of scoring. On the defensive end, I give the slight advantage to the Bulldogs. Deep unit. Veteran unit. More so than Kingston anyway, even with defending Memorial Cup winner Sean Day on the squad. It's in net that I give a clear advantage to the Frontenacs. Kaden Fulcher is a great goalie. But Helvig has the experience advantage and he's been so good in these playoffs (+.920 save percentage). I also like all the playoff experience in Kingston's lineup, and that is invaluable when we get to this point in the postseason when guys really start to get tired. When I filled out my bracket before the postseason began, Kingston was my choice to come out of the East and I'm sticking with that. It will be a close series, but I look at Kingston's ability to work the cycle game, their veteran stability, and their advantage in net to help them get a competitive edge.
Prediction: Kingston in 6
1. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 2. Kitchener Rangers
Season Series: Sault Ste. Marie leads 4-0
Analysis: Look, don't let the Soo's regular season dominance of this series make you believe that this one will be a cake walk. Only one of those games came after the trade deadline when Kitchener greatly improved their squad. Kitchener's goaltending really struggled in those regular season matchups, with 3 out of 4 started by someone other than Mario Culina. Culina was great in the Sarnia series and will look to continue that into this series. Meanwhile, Matthew Villalta struggled against Owen Sound and will need to prove himself against an equally formidable foe in Kitchener (compared to Owen Sound). Quite frankly, I think that Owen Sound largely outplayed the Soo in the last round, but their goaltending just let them down. The Greyhounds will need to be better in order to beat Kitchener because Culina can shut the door. Cutting down their defensive zone turnovers is a must, especially against a Kitchener forecheck which is extremely strong. What the Soo needs to do here is use their speed advantage. They need to push the pace and keep Kitchener on it's heals. Where as the Rangers are likely to try to slow the game down, work the cycle and really grind things out in the offensive end. So who am I going with? People are pointing at that Owen Sound series and saying that the Hounds are overrated. But that Attack team was, IMO, the second best team in the Conference (as proven by their 2nd half record too). That's not to say that I think this is an easier match-up. It's just that we can't discredit what SSM has done this season. Again, they were my pick to win the OHL this year and I'm sticking with it. I think their speed will be too much for the Rangers and it gives them the advantage.
Prediction: Greyhounds in 6