OHL Western Conference final preview: Connor McDavid, Otters underdogs vs. 'Hounds

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Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images
Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

It is Connor McDavid's team against Darnell Nurse's team in a conference final full of Oilers overtones,, even if the two gifted teens know better than to acknowledge that connection.

The Edmonton Oilers won the McDavid lottery last Saturday and, of course, drafted Nurse No. 9 overall two summers ago when they didn't actually have an early pick to use on a skilled forward. The franchise player of the Erie Otters and blossoming shutdown defenceman of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds — which come to think of it, are the junior team of Wayne Gretzky, who just praised McDavid to the skies this week — are trying to make it not about them. It's Erie against the Soo, the next stage in the playoffs.

"It's not very hard to stay focused," McDavid says of the outside influence. "It's an exciting time for us and we really need to have all hands on deck and we're looking forward to it. Whatever outside stuff there is, it doesn't really matter.

"Maybe it's a good story, whatever," the OHL's playoff scoring leader adds. "But it really has no effect on the series."

The two were frontline players for Team Canada at the world junior championship at mid-season. Nurse, one of four 'Hounds who played at the WJC, maintains that the Edmonton connection isn't relevant.

"Our series starts tomorrow and I'll worry about that once it's over," he says.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Nurse says of facing McDavid. "He's the biggest offensive threat in our league and i'm looking forward to going out and doing my job."

(1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (54-12-2, 110 points) vs. (2) Erie Otters (50-14-4, 104 pts)

Season series: Tied 1-1. Final Dynamic Dozen ranking (regular season): Otters first, 'Hounds second. Post-trade deadline records: 'Hounds 33-3-0, Otters 30-6-1, Prediction: 'Hounds in 6.

Why the 'Hounds should win: To think, the Guelph Storm team of 12 months ago that looked like juggernauts pales alongside the team the 'Hounds have become since loading up with trades for offensive defenceman Anthony DeAngelo and  power winger Nick Ritchie. They blended seamlessly into a team with a two-year captain in Nurse and the Soo has averaged about one loss per month since.

"The greatest thing I've learned over the last year is how to bring together a team that has so many strong personalities," says Nurse, whose team also added Buffalo Sabres prospect Justin Bailey and defenceman Connor Boland at the midpoint. "It's been real fun, the city's positive. I'm sure everyone is eager to get the series started and end all the talking."

Seven 'Hounds had at least a point per game during the sweeps against Saginaw and Guelph. That ensemble, which also prominently features two decent prospects in Jared McCann and Sergey Tolchinsky, can sustain pressure and bottle up teams. That might prove too much for Erie, which likes to get McDavid and Dylan Strome, et al., into mismatches. Coach Sheldon Keefe's 'Hounds don't have any shift-fillers in the bottom 6.

"We have had a lot of success taking advantage of other teams' weaknesses in line matchups," Otters coach Kris Knoblauch says. "I don't think that's going to be the case against the Greyhounds. They're a very deep team, all four lines, six defencemen. It's going to be a lot difficult to get the matchups we want, if there are any. They are deep and get goal-scoring throughout their lineup."

Another series subtext is that in December, each team was seen as a destination for overage goalie Jake Paterson. The Detroit Red Wings prospect landed with Kitchener and the 'Hounds and Otters respectively stayed the course with Brandon Halverson and Devin Williams.

"We've seen a lot of growth in Halvy's game," Keefe says of Halverson. "He's had a lot of different experiences since the end of last season, the NHL draft, development camp with the Rangers, rookie camp with Rangers, world junior camp and ultimately playing a backup role for Team USA. All of those experiences certainly sped up his development. Also, getting through the deadline and us making it clear that he was our guy. I think that also helped his mindset. He has been excellent for us for quite some time.

"The questions about our goaltending, whether external or internal, are very much in the past."

How the Otters could win: At the world junior, McDavid's productivity spiked over the course of the tournament. A best-of-7 series against a team that can study a star's habits and also agitate is a different challenge from a tournament. Point being, though, McDavid can kick it up and the Otters have a surfeit of scorers with Strome, rookie of the year Alex DeBrincat and 19-year-olds Nick Baptiste and Remi Elie.

Even generational No. 1 picks can find their limit. Gretzky's Greyhounds lost the OHL final in 1978. Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby got their QMJHL teams to Memorial Cups in '84 and 2005, but fell short. McDavid might need another gear to negate the Greyhounds' advantages.

"What's exciting is the intensity that builds with each new series," McDavid says. "That's something we're going to be able to use in this series is that we've really had to battle our way here. For the Soo, I think it's been a little bit different for them. They were able to breeze through the first two rounds. We've had a tough go."

"We have a pretty bitter taste in our mouth," McDavid adds. "We're looking forward to getting going and change what we missed out on last year [after losing in the third round to Guelph last spring]."

The Otters' depth has been affected by suspensions to 19-year-old wing Mason Marchment and overage defenceman Kurtis MacDermid during Round 2 against London. The onus on the Otters, in order to prevail, will be to contain that Soo power play.

"Our penalty kill has really been rolling, but we can't afford to take many penalties against them," Knoblauch says. "Our power play needs to really make an impact. It's going to be really tough to score 5-on-5."

In goal, Williams' playoff performances have looked increasingly impressive, bearing in mind that winning creates a halo effect. The 19-year-old Saginaw, Mich., native isn't as highly regarded as Halverson, even though it's his second post-season as a starter.

Whichever goalie holds up better will be a big factor.

"I think there were a lot of expectations on Devin based on his great season as an 18-year-old," Knoblauch says. "It's also more difficult going from being a backup to being the starter. As the season went along we made some changes in the way we defended. Devin has been playing very well.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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