No Game 7's in the first round of the OHL playoffs this year. But it's safe to say that some teams were made to sweat. For example, safe to say that Sarnia will be happy to stare down another goalie besides Michael Dipietro in the next round (no offense meant to Mario Culina/Luke Richardson).
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 now it's time to look at round two.
#1. Hamilton Bulldogs vs. #4. Niagara IceDogs
Season Series: Niagara leads 5-1
Analysis: I'm sure it's surprising to see just how much Niagara dominated the season series between these two clubs. This includes taking the last two games that these two played against each other in March. Two things were the difference in that season series. The first was the powerplay. In the season head to head, Niagara operated at nearly 40% on the powerplay! And the second was goaltending with Stephen Dhillon (.940 SV%) outplaying Kaden Fulcher (.880 SV%). So it goes without saying that Hamilton is going to need to stay out of the box if they want to win this series. This is especially true considering Hamilton's PK did not look great in the opening round against Ottawa. Hamilton will also need to get more from guys like Marian Studenic, Mackenzie Entwistle, and Arthur Kaliyev (although I realize that his ice time has been reduced). Where the Bulldogs have the advantage in this series is depth. They need their veteran 3rd/4th lines to outplay and outwork Niagara's and it's something that didn't happen in the regular season either. Niagara, on the other hand, is going to need to continue to get good goaltending from Stephen Dhillon, who was excellent against Oshawa. Their inexperienced defense is going to face all it can handle against Hamilton's veteran and deep forward group. Ultimately, I do feel like Hamilton will take this series, but I do also believe that Niagara is going to push them hard. The real difference maker for me right now is Robert Thomas, who is playing his best hockey of the season.
Prediction: Hamilton in 6
#2. Barrie Colts vs. #3. Kingston Frontenacs
Season Series: Kingston leads 3-1
Analysis: Both of these teams had to work exceptionally hard to escape the first round, even if neither had to play in a game 7. Barrie managed to survive without it's star, Andrei Svechnikov, to start the playoffs. Where as Kingston fought off a hard nosed North Bay squad, capped off by a thrilling 3OT game. For Barrie, I think one of the main keys to this series is goaltending. Leo Lazerev really struggled against the Fronts in the regular season. He had some shaky moments in the opening round, but battled hard and came through in the clutch to win his first OHL playoff series against Mississauga. He'll need to be even better against a deep Frontenacs team. Up front, I feel like these two teams line up extremely well. Three lines deep. Aggressive. Tenacious. But it's on the defensive side of things that I feel Kingston has the advantage. For as good as Barrie's defense has been this year (the most improved group in the league by far), the playoffs are another test and their inexperience could hurt them. I also feel more confident with Jeremy Helvig in the net and I think he can be a difference maker. I look at Kingston's experience and I see them reaching the 3rd round for the first time in 25 years (since 1993; a team that featured Chris Gratton and Craig Rivet).
Prediction: Kingston in 7
#1. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. #4. Owen Sound Attack
Season Series: Tied at 1
Analysis: Interesting that both of these teams are coming off of sweeps in the opening round, although I don't think anyone would call Owen Sound's sweep an easy victory. Let's be honest here though, everyone is expecting Sault Ste. Marie to win this series. They have the offensive firepower. They have the defensive experience. And they've been getting solid goaltending from Matthew Villalta. This is a team that has been number one pretty much all year in the CHL. But it's important not to sleep on the Attack. They started slow, but were probably the second best team in the Conference in the second half. The Attack are finally healthy and they are a solid hockey club. What they need to do to win is simple. Stay out of the box and make the Hounds outwork you 5 on 5. And play solid team defense to support Olivier Lafreniere, who isn't someone I'm extremely confident can make enough big saves to get his team this victory. The Attack also need WAY better production from Nick Suzuki and Jonah Gadjovich, who combined for one goal in four games against London. I love this Owen Sound team, but I just don't see them tackling this giant. The Greyhounds operate on another level and still look like the favourite to represent the OHL at the Memorial Cup this year.
Prediction: Sault Ste. Marie in 5
#2. Kitchener Rangers vs. #3. Sarnia Sting
Season Series: Kitchener leads 3-1
Analysis: This is the series in round two that I see being the most difficult to predict. So let's break it down position by position. In net, I give the slight advantage to the Sting with Justin Fazio. Mario Culina has been solid since arriving in Kitchener, but he looked a bit shaky down the stretch and in the opening round against Guelph. On defense, I give the slight nod to the Rangers because they have guys like Stanley and McEneny who have the experience advantage over anyone on that Sting blueline. On offense, I'm calling it a draw. Both teams are three lines deep in terms of pure playmaking ability. Both teams have size upfront. Both teams have solid powerplay units (even if Sarnia didn't score on the PP against Windsor). No question that Sarnia will need more from Jordan Kyrou though. He had only 1 goal and 1 assist in the opening round. I think one thing that could be a real difference maker is Sarnia's penalty kill. They were perfect against Kitchener in the regular season and were by far the league's most effective unit in the regular season. If they can keep the Rangers from scoring with the man advantage and win the 5 on 5 battle, they take this series. I also look at steady goaltending swinging the series in Sarnia's favour.
Prediction: Sarnia in 7