What the Eastern Conference lacks in a surefire contender is more than made up for series-turning star power.
Each of the big three vying to get up from the kids' table to challenge for the J. Ross Robertson Cup is boosted by a 19-year-old — Malcolm Subban in the Belleville Bulls' crease, Mark Scheifele in Barrie and Boone Jenner in Oshawa, although it's a 1-2 punch with Scott Laughton, whose great leap forward vaulted him all the way to a stint with the Philadelphia Flyers. Whoever's team emerges at the end of Round 3 will have the greatest effect on how his junior tenure is remembered. With that in mind, here's a look at the Eastern Conference semifinal series which open Wednesday at Barrie and Friday at Belleville:
(2) Barrie Colts vs. (3) Oshawa Generals
Season series: Barrie 2-1-0-1 (1 shootout win). Odds favour: Barrie 59 per cent. Most statistically probable outcome: Barrie in 7. Prediction: Oshawa in 7.
Why the Generals should win: It's an either/or matchup, so don't get too bent out of shape by the Oshawa selection. It was settled on after flipping a coin 41 times and having 'heads, Oshawa' come up in 23 instances. Taking both teams with home-ice advantage, well, that's kind of milquetoast. The Gens have decent frontline talent in Biggs, Jenner, Laughton and Lessio, all high NHL draft picks, and back it up with with good depth through youngsters Cole Cassels, 17, and Michael Dal Colle, and overage Scott Sabourin. They are capable of keeping Barrie on its toes for 60 minutes, especially with the Colts down a defender due to captain Ryan O'Connor's suspension.
Oshawa's big ifs are goaltending and a power play that failed to make crisp plays" whilst going 1-for-26 during a five-game first-rounder vs. Niagara. The matchup between 18-year-old Carolina Hurricanes third-rounder Daniel Altshuller and Barrie's overage Mathias Niederberger represents two different strains of junior goalie. Altshuller was identified early on as having high potential and has supported that with his play, while Niederberger has had to earn it after coming to the OHL at the ripe old age of 19. A good showing by the maturing Altshuller, a former Canadian under-18 team goalie, could help tip the scales.
How the Colts could win: Scheifele (4G-6A in four games in the first round) gets the better of Laughton (6G-6A in five playoff games) in the matchup between top-rank centres. Barrie, which had the OHL's most proficient regular-season power play, will also have to win the special teams matchup despite the absence of O'Connor, their leader in defenceman scoring and best puck mover. That's where blue-chipper Aaron Ekblad and forward Steven Beyers will need to be paramount while running the points.
Defensively, Ekblad and drafted defenders Jake Dotchin and Alex Lepkowski will have be disciplined in the face of the Generals' size, forechecking and propensity for chippiness. Niederberger likely furnishes a slight edge in goal.
(1) Belleville Bulls vs. (5) Sudbury Wolves
Season series: Belleville 3-1-0-0, all three wins post-trade deadline. Odds favour: Belleville 75%. Most statistically probable outcome: Belleville in 5. Prediction: Belleville in 6.
Why the Bulls should win: Belleville is built to win this season, but it seems to be a level-of-the-opponent team. It did not lose in regulation in either of its games against the London Knights but often had a fight on its hands against their conference's bottom four teams of Kingston, Mississauga, Ottawa and Peterborough.
That makes the series fraught with upset potential. But Subban was sharp once the series against Mississauga reached the buckle-down stage, plus it's tough, within the East, to stymie all of Belleville's potential scoring threats, from the Alan Quine-Daniil Zharkov combo through to Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Brendan Gaunce and the cagey Tyler Graovac, who finally has a deal with the Minnesota Wild.
The bottom line is that when the Bulls are good, it's very tough to take them out when they have an extra home game on their Olympic-sized surface at the Yardmen Arena.
How the Wolves could win: The use of clichés is impossible to resist since Sudbury knows what it is up against (coach Trent Cull: "We feel we are a team that has a chance to win against anybody any night, but no doubt it is a David and Goliath type of series").
Goalie Franky Palazzese's acrobatics means the Wolves are never a write-off. There is a lot to like about how Cull managed the bench in the Sturgeon Stretch Series vs. Brampton, using everyone in a lineup that included only four 19-year-old or overage skaters (Michael Kantor and Chad Thibodeau up front; Charlie Dodero and Kevin Raine at the back). That's an ideal in junior hockey which can't always be realized thanks to the non-stop pressure to win. There's a lot of promise in the Nickel City with the likes of draft-year forwards Nick Baptiste and Dominik Kahun. If Belleville is flat, the Wolves could pounce, although it's more likely this is too much too soon. It's good seasoning for next season, though.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.