People still watch those NCAA tournament games that ultimately might not figure in the final outcome. The same might apply to the Ontario Hockey League's own mid-major conference.
An Eastern team has not won the J. Ross Robertson Cup since 2006, but its top three all bring compelling cases and name-brand stars to the party. In Belleville, Boston Bruins first-rounder Malcolm Subban is looking to lead a playoff run in his final OHL season, while the small-market Bulls might need a championship to restore faith in the team's long-term viability. In Barrie, Mark Scheifele has nothing left to prove as a junior — try 30 points in 15 games since the Winnipeg Jets sent him back to junior for the second time — except that he can lead a team into the spring. Last year, the Colts let a 3-1 second-round lead get away.
Then there's the Oshawa Generals. The lot of the junior hockey life is that outside factors — injuries, the needs of NHL organizations, the world junior championship and, in David Branch's OHL, long suspensions — often compromise a team's lineup. The third-seeded Gens dealt with quite a bit of that in the regular season. It lost two-way centre Scott Laughton to a 10-game headshot ban and a stint with the Philadelphia Flyers. Two-thirds of its top line jetted off to a remote region of Russia when Tyler Biggs and Boone Jenner went to the WJC. Their most dynamic attacker, left wing Lucas Lessio, missed half the season and is just now getting back to form.
The Generals are built more for the playoffs. They had a darkhorse look coming into the season. With Carolina Hurricanes pick Daniel Altshuller established as a starting goalie, they might come through the middle and win the conference. In the short run, here are capsules of the Eastern Conference series, making note of each team's record since trade deadline day on Jan. 10. Play begins Thursday.
(4) Brampton Battalion (15-8-0-2, .640 point pct.) vs. (5) Sudbury Wolves (11-11-3-4, .500)
Season series: Brampton 5-3-0-0. Odds favour: Brampton 62 per cent. Prediction: Brampton in 6.
Why the Troops should win: Some great thundering nit took Sudbury to win this matchup last March, probably as a protest against boring hockey. Brampton promptly swept, so the gut instinct is to go with the gutless form pick instead of doubling down on the Wolves.
The North Bay-bound Battalion's anti-style usually has an early April expiration date. Veteran defender Charlie Dodero and the Wolves might be able to contain power-play ace Barclay Goodrow, who scored 17 of his 38 with the extra skater(s), but Brampton typically only has to score three goals to win. The likes of wings Nick Paul and Matt MacLeod furnish the size up front that could possibly wear down Sudbury's promising young defenders such as Jeff Corbett and Evan de Haan.
Sudbury's Franky Palazzese will have to steal a win or two for the Wolves to have a shot. He has motivation, as an undrafted goalie who was unfairly scapegoated after being thrown into the playoff pressure cooker two seasons ago with Kingston.
(3) Oshawa Generals (19-7-0-1, .722) vs. (6) Niagara IceDogs (8-18-1-0, .315)
Season series: Oshawa 2-0-0-0. Odds favour: Oshawa 89%. Prediction: Oshawa in 5.
Why Oshawa should win: The Gens, as noted, have the goods. The prologue for this game was written last March 25, when Altshuller took over with the 'Shwa down 2-0 to the then-stacked IceDogs in a first-round series. Altshuller stopped 90-of-97 shots as Oshawa tied the series before going down in six. The Generals, to a man, seem more mature in all three position groups. Biggs, Jenner, Lessio and overage 30-goal man Scott Sabourin, each more than 200 pounds, can also grind down defencemen.
Why five games? Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie, the stars whom IceDogs coach-GM Marty Williamson could not move when the NHL season started right as the deadline approached, will treat the Garden City to one last good home performance for auld lang syne. Strome sat out the last two regular-season games with a foot injury, but Williamson told St. Catharines' 610 CKTB on Tuesday that the New York Islanders prospect has a full bill of health.
(2) Barrie Colts (18-8-2-1, .672) vs. (7) Kingston Frontenacs (7-18-1-3, .310)
Season series: Barrie 3-1-0-0, with one shootout win. Odds favour: Barrie 89%. Prediction: Barrie in 5.
Why Barrie should win: Scheifele, Boston Bruins signee Anthony Camara, trickster Andreas Athanasiou and puck mover extraordinaire Ryan O'Connor take the league's best power play into a series vs. a team with the most porous penalty kill. The Colts sometimes seem slow to get into games where they are the on-paper favourite, but the fact four offensive players come to mind before you even get to leading point-getter Zach Hall (81 points in 63 games, ahead of Scheifele's 79 in 45) tells you they are lethal. Goalie Mathias Niederberger (2.34 average, .933 save pct. in 56 games) is not going to give games away, at least not this early in the playoffs.
Only six Frontenacs have any OHL playoff experience, none while wearing a black K on their chests. Coach Todd Gill's young Fronts played Barrie tough in all but one of their matchups. Their cadre of youngsters and first-year imports such as Sam Bennett, hard-working Henri (Hank) Ikonen, Roland McKeown, Sam Povorozniouk and Ryan Kujawinski have a rise-to-it opportunity. That might enable the Fronts to finagle a win on home ice.
(1) Belleville Bulls (22-4-2-1, .810) vs. (8) Mississauga Steelheads (7-18-1-3, .310)
Season series: Tied 2-2-0-0, with Belleville winning past two by shutout. Odds favour:Belleville 89%. Prediction: Belleville in 4.
Why Belleville should win: It's a near role reversal from 2011, when the Bellevillians were a scoring-starved outfit that scraped into the playoffs behind a 17-year-old goalie and Mississsauga was eyeing a championship. The then-Majors allowed only one goal during a four-game sweep.
For Belleville and Subban, he of the 2.14 average, .934 save percentage, five-shutout campaign, this series is probably all about sowing an attitude. The Bulls might have the tightest ship defensively of the three very tall midgets Eastern Conference heavyweights. Sometimes they get away from that and let the likes of drafted forwards Joseph Cramarossa, Brendan Gaunce, Tyler Graovac, Alan Quine and Daniil Zharkov, along with draft prospect Jordan Subban, indulge their inner freewheelers.
Toronto Maple Leafs pick Stuart Percy and draft-year goalie Spencer Martin will help 'Sauga make sure Belleville doesn't get anything off it except by virtue of having more offensive punch.
(Odds calculated by Rob Pettapiece.)
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.