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Barrie Colts, Belleville Bulls meet in OHL Eastern Conference final that may be tilted by big ice

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Sabres pick Alex Lepkowski and the Colts are 8-0 in the playoffs (OHL Images)

The Barrie Colts-Belleville Bulls series is wide-open and so is the choice of tipping points.

In Colts centre Mark Scheifele and Bulls goalie Malcolm Subban respectively, each of the OHL's Eastern Conference finalists is fronted by a marquee star who could give his team the boost to go the final. Based on performance, they grade out as dead-even possibilities to win the series and advance to the championship against the Plymouth Whalers-London Knights victor, or whatever's left of the survivor should that saw-off go six to seven games. Who knows, maybe even one quirk in the scheduling could prove to be the biggest obstacle.

Belleville opted to start the series with back-to-back games on its Olympic-sized ice surface. There is also no rest day skedded in between Game 5 at Belleville and Game 6 in Barrie. Depth and recovery is going to have to kick in for the Colts. For whatever this scrap of a sample is worth, they were shut out by Subban during their only visit to Belleville, which was the home leg of a back-to-back. But don't bank that too quickly, since it came while star defenceman Aaron Ekblad was injured.

"I think it's going to be fine," says Colts defenceman Alex Lepkowski, a 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres draft pick "We've been preparing well for the Olympic ice here in Barrie. From our forwards down to our defence, I think we have a mobile team and it's not going to be too much of a factor."

The goalie matchup of Subban and the seemingly ever underappreciated Mathias Niederberger might inveigle both teams to play run and gun. The Plymouth-London Western final shapes up as more of a grind.

The Dale Hawerchuk-guided Colts scored an Eastern-high 239 goals and had the league's most efficient power play. They managed to do that despite the limited availability of Scheifele (78 points in 45 games) and Boston Bruins prospect Anthony Camara (36 goals, 60 points in 50 games). The Bulls, with six NHL draft picks up front and speedy defenceman Jordan Subban occasionally becoming a de facto fourth forward, prefer to pick their spots to run and gun. They are capable of it with the likes of Vancouver Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce and recent Minnesota Wild signing Tyler Graovac.

"They have a high-tempo explosive attack, a terrific power play," Bulls coach George Burnett says of Barrie. "I think they've maintained their high level of play despite extended absences of three of their top players in Scheifele, Camara and Niederberger.

"When you play back-to-back in your own building, it's something that you want to take advantage of," Burnett adds. "We've worked all year to have that."

Here is a capsule look at the series, which begins Friday (7 p.m. ET, Sportsnet ONE).

(2) Barrie Colts vs. (1) Belleville Bulls

Season series: Belleville 1-0-0-1. Odds favour: Barrie 50 per cent. Most statistically probable outcome: Barrie in 7. Prediction: Barrie in 7.

Why the Colts? As if this is not based solely on feel after seeing the Colts sweep aside the fairly talented Oshawa Generals in the second round. Some Oshawa underachievement might have played into it, but Barrie buckled down after needing some late-game puck luck in the series opener. Niederberger was outstanding.

The Colts indicated that they cover the defensive zone better than they get credit for. That could be a good omen against the Bulls' brigade.

"Sticking with our structure has really helped us throughout the whole season," Lepkowski says. "As far as physicality goes, we're probably going to play a physical game, but I think there's a high amount of respect between both teams."

Brooming Oshawa out the door in four means Colts captain Ryan O'Connor, a first-pair defenceman and power-play quarterback, cannot return from a head-checking suspension until Game 5. The Colts have coped well with his absence.

"We've had guys step up huge," Lepkowski says. "[Sophomore] Alex Yuill has come in and really stepped up his game. It's been a whole team effort back there, everyone from Aaron Ekblad down to Michael Webster. We've all pulled together and kept pushing forward."

Assuming experience is factor, who has the edge in it? Camara and Scheifele (twice) played in the world junior, while Colts have OHL final experience though left wings Andreas Athanasiou and Mitchell Theoret, who were with London and Niagara last spring.

Scheifele is likely the most capable skater of delivering a singular performance that lists his entire team's play.

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Vancouver Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce is leading Belleville in playoff scoring (OHL Images)

"Mark has always had a terrific attitude [since returning from the Jets," Hawerchuk says. "All our players in our league want to play in the National Hockey League. It's just a question of when for him. There was a little bit of disappointment for him at first. He's been a terrific player and a terrific leader. There's nobody that loves the game more than Mark does."

The most playoff-seasoned Bulls include Anaheim Ducks signing Joseph Cramarossa, who was on Mississauga's 2011 Memorial Cup runner up. Graovac and defencemen Jake Cardwell and Stephen Silas have each played in an Eastern final.

"As a group, we've taken a lot of pride in staying in the present," Burnett says. "We've got an older group, we lean on those guys who have had a chance to take part in a playoff run and their ability to calm the group down and remain poised when you hit a bump in the road

Whose defence corps chips in more to help produce a winning effort? Like Barrie, Belleville is deep defensively by Eastern Conference standards. Brady Austin, also a Sabres pick and overages Cardwell and Silas have all been active offensively, along with Subban.

"We have a lot of abilities offensively and defensively in our six guys," Gaunce says. "Brady has been a big part of our team all year. He plays against the top lines, he also plays offensive roles."

Whereas Malcolm Subban is a pair of pocket aces, the youngest Subban might be the wild card. The 18-year-old's 15-goal, 51-point regular-season statlines was in line with what his brother P.K. Subban, now a Norris Trophy candidate with the Montreal Canadiens, put up at the same age six years ago in Belleville. The eldest Subban brother had 15 goals and 56 points in his draft season.

"Jordan has matured," Burnett said. "Naturally, he sees the comparisons between he and his older brother. I know that they're not the same people. P.K. has certainly helped him with his preparation and his focus. He's done a lot of great things in this league. Offensively, he may be a little farther ahead than his older brother [at the same age]. He's taken on more responsibilities with being able to be on the ice against other teams' elite players.

Will Niederberger's background as a European goaltender help on that big ice? In 2007, the Bulls had home-ice advantage in the Eastern final and bowed out to the Sudbury Wolves, backed by goalie Sebastian Dahm, a Dane. (Coincidentally, Dahm now plays for a Danish pro team called the Mighty Bulls).

Niederberger, as a native of Germany, is used to the different angles presented by playing on the wider ice surface. The overage, over the last season and a half, has been busier than any goalie who's performed better and has performed better than any goalie who has been busier.

"There was an adjustment two years ago when he came over to the smaller rink," Hawerchuk says. "He has a good feel on that type of ice surface, for sure.

"You have two goaltenders who are among the best in the league [Niederberger and Subban]," adds the Colts coach. "Time will tell if it's epic or not."

"We know that they have the same confidence in Niederberger that we have in Malcolm," Gaunce says.

Will breezing through the first two rounds come back to bite Barrie in an uncomfortable place? The media has long memories, so forget the notion of this season for this season. Barrie had the 3-1 series lead in the second round last season, but lost three in a row to the Ottawa 67's. Teenagers age, though.

"Our attitude is always, 'that game's done and over with, we just have to move on to the next one,' " Lepkowski says. "I don't think a loss is going to put a kink in our armor."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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