North Bay Battalion vs. Guelph Storm
Season series: Storm 2-0. Odds favour: Storm 95 per cent. Most mathematically likely outcome: Storm in 5. Prediction: Storm in 5.
Scott Walker, all at once, seemed to convey the standard pre-series respect and burgeoning confidence of the heavy favourite.
The difference in the degree of difficulty between the Guelph Storm and North Bay Battalion's path to this OHL final is distinct. The Storm finished first overall while playing in the stacked Midwest Division without amassing a ton of individual honours, then needed just more than one more game than the minimum in both the second and third rounds vs. 100-point London and Erie teams. The rub is the Storm have been running out front all season. So Walker isn't making much of the fact the 26-point gap in the regular-season showings is the largest between OHL finalists since 2007. North Bay did have to play desperate in order to play in May.
"You're playing hard hockey and quality teams all the time," the Storm coach says of life in the Midwest. "But it's no different [in the Eastern Conference, where North Bay resides] just because the point totals are different, They might have been a lot closer in points on the other side so you're still playing quality opponents. There are always places that, regardless of the standings, are hard to get a win out of.
"They [North Bay] are a solid group, They play a real strong team game, really well-coached, really structured. They'll be all that we can handle, for sure."
The combo of Guelph hailing from the power conference that has produced the OHL's last seven champions (and 11 of the last 12) and grading out higher on most of the advanced metrics means there is high potential for a short series. Of course, the Battalion's "renowned conservative game" can work wonders in the short run. One playoff series is but a small sample, even if it goes seven games.
"We're not a team of superstars, we're just a team that works extremely hard," Battalion captain Barclay Goodrow says. "We're going to need all four lines and all six defencemen to be playing their best."
Guelph hosts the first two contests on Thursday and Friday, followed by a three-day break before back-to-back games in the North Bay Memorial Gardens.
Which player who's been close before finally gets a chance to play in the Memorial Cup? For Guelph, that means Columbus Blue Jackets-drafted left wing Kerby Rychel and Los Angeles Kings-selected defender Nick Ebert, the spoils of a massive pre-Christmas trade with the Windsor Spitfires. The pair were rookies in 2010-11 when the Spitfires came within three wins of qualifying; and Windsor bid for this tournament. Both of the 19-year-olds have blended into the Storm like Vinny Gambini in Beechum County, Alabama.
"It hasn't that been hard," Walker says of adding the two ex-Spits. "The core, the nucleus of this team has been together since the 1994 draft [in 2010]. They came in as 16-year-olds, I came in at Christmas that year, and we haven't changed too much about our philosophy and our game style, or the culture off the ice. When you get new guys and your core guys have been here for a while, they set the tone. They take care of the way people handle themselves off the ice.
"When you pay a lot for two highly skilled players, you expect a lot. This is the time of year we wanted them for and they've shown it. They weren't here to do everything, they were here to support the guys around them and they've done that."
Rychel, the playoff co-scoring leader, is on the shortlist of potential playoff MVPs. On the North Bay side, overage wing Ben Thomson is finishing up with a finals trip. In his four years in Kitchener, the Rangers twice lost conference finals, plus there was the '12-13 campaign that then-Kitchener coach Steve Spott proclaimed would be treated as "a Memorial Cup year" before a second-round loss. Eighteen-year-old defenceman Miles Liberati is also seeking a shot making it to London, where he started the season.
Will the Battalion be able to recover the edge they had against Oshawa in the Eastern final? There is always the question about whether a team is secretly satisfied with winning its conference, and the final is just gravy. North Bay's season is already a whopping success, competitively and commercially. It does come in with some experience with being doubted.
"Our toughest series was against Niagara, being down 3-1 facing adversity," Battalion centre Mike Amadio says. "We learned a lot from that series. We knew that we didn't want that to be our last game. We all battled as a group to make that possible."
North Bay has won 11-of-13 games since it faced elimination in the first round. It did, however, beat Barrie and Oshawa teams whose best defencemen, Aaron Ekblad and Josh Brown respectively, each missed some portion of the series.
Will the Storm remain patient against North Bay's tr... uh, close checking? The Battalion work on the principle that eventually, the opponent will push too hard and commit a turnover. The Storm dealt with a similar game plan against the Plymouth Whalers ("a big, physical team," Walker says). It dropped one game in that round, when OHL goalie of the year Alex Nedeljkovic made 52 saves in a 2-1 contest. It bounced back, though, and is actually scoring at a slightly higher clip in the playoffs than it did in the regular season... when it only led the OHL with 338 goals.
Point being, the Storm seem to have a very mature group.
"We're happy, but we're not satisfied," captain Matt Finn says. "We're not done yet."
The Battalion's top two pairs, Dylan Blujus and Marcus McIvor and Brenden Miller and Kyle Wood, will have to be very sharp. North Bay has the potential to make Guelph fight through some frustration.
"We got to do what is best for our team," Battalion coach Stan Butler says. "Scott's got a tremendous team over there. We haven't won too many 8-7 hockey games this year.
Which sub-6-footer (groaner alert) in goal will stand taller, Guelph's Justin Nichols or North Bay's Jake Smith? For the first time in several seasons, the final will begin with a matchup between two smaller goalies. (The London Knights started the 2013 championship with 6-foot-6 Anthony Stolarz before 5-11 Jake Patterson came in with the bailing bucket for the final three games.)
Nichols, who's fashioned a 2.65 playoff average and .921 save percentage on 33.7 shots per game, was last seen recording a bounce-back 40-save shutout in the semifinal clincher vs. Erie last week. Smith (2.01/.919/24.8) has been more stable, but is likely to have lot more activity in front of him than he saw in any of the first three rounds. Guelph, with two 40-goal men in Scott Kosmachuk and Robby Fabbri, scored 123 more goals than North Bay during in the regular season.
Either way, score one for the lithe puckstopper.
"If he stops the puck, that's the system I like," Walker says. "Size or style does not matter to me."
Sorry to keep going to this well, but should the OHL consider revamping the playoff format? A spring where the four 95-plus point Western teams had a little intramural tournament while an 82-point club came through the East should at least spur some debate. A true 1-to-16 seeding à la the QMJHL is probably never going to get traction with the powers-that-be, which shudder at the thought of having Ottawa and Saginaw meet in the first round. Rivalry matchups also help generate interest during the earlier rounds, which are typically a tougher sell with the ticket-buying public.
One compromise solution worth exploring is reseeding the eight remaining teams for the second round, regardless of conference. In that imagined scenario, Guelph would have drawn the 70-point Peterborough Petes instead of the 106-point Otters back in the second round. North Bay would have faced London instead of Barrie.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.