London Knights, Plymouth Whalers on collision course: OHL Western Conference preview

Buzzing The Net

The skate is on the other foot, and it won't pinch one bit if the Kitchener Rangers somehow pull it off.

Twelve months ago, the London Knights, riding a goalie in a groove and blocking shots at every turn, took apart the Kitchener Rangers in four games in the Western Conference semifinal. Kitchener's M.O. in the rematch is similar. Hope goalie John Gibson, who couldn't be beat in the first round, can muffle the Knights sufficiently to give the occasionally offensively challenged Rangers a chance for the upset.

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Gibson could be the biggest barrier to a London Knights three-peat, never mind a repeat, considering how much talent the Knights are expected to return in 2013-14. Meantime, the Owen Sound Attack, who allowed a league-low 160 goals in the regular season, hook up with the Plymouth Whalers, who scored a league-high 291. There should not be too many dull moments. Here is a capsule characterization of the two Western semis, which each open Friday:

(2) Plymouth Whalers vs. (3) Owen Sound Attack

Season series: Plymouth 2-1-0-1. Odds favour: Plymouth 66 per cent. Most statistically probable outcome: Plymouth in 5. Prediction:Plymouth in 6.

Why the Whalers should win: Plymouth outscored the opposition 63-19 during month of March. Play with that cherry-picked stat for a while. By no means does that mean beating the Attack is a fait accompli, since Owen Sound is very good is in its own space. Plymouth's nonstop cavalcade of skilled forwards gets all the attention, but it has allowed three goals or fewer in 44 of its 46 wins. you could do much worse than a group with two drafted 18-year-olds, Gianluca Curcuruto and Connor Carrick, a stay-at-home 19-year-old, Nick Malysa, and two solid overages in Austin Levi and Colin MacDonald. Relying on 17-year-old goalie Alex Nedeljkovic makes for a good storyline, but Plymouth might not need the rookie to steal games.

Plymouth coach-GM Mike Vellucci tweaked wisely at mid-season. Trading for eventual league scoring champ Vince Trocheck was the big shiny thing, but they added grit and a big body on the wings by dealing for Zach Lorentz and Sebastian Uvira. That made it easier for Trocheck, Rickard Rakell, Stefan Noesen, Mitchell Heard, Garrett Meurs and their designated hitters, 6-foot-4, 210-pound Tom Wilson and 6-foot-2, 200-pound Cody Payne — pausing for breath, is that everybody? — to do their thing. The Whalers can pressure in waves, only for more sustained stretches than the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were able to when they went toe-to-toe with the Attack in the opening round.

How the Attack could win: The four factors in this instance are probably being able to bang and crash, draw penalties, defuse dogged forechecking and have A-plus goaltending. The Bayshore boys have that capacity for all four. It's equipped to play a grinding game with the likes of wings Daniel Zweep (6-foot-5, 229), Kurtis Gabriel (6-4, 206), Steven Janes (6-4, 205) and burgeoning two-way centre Zach Nastasiuk (6-1, 191). The indefatigable trio of Dallas Stars value pick Gemel Smith and 19-year-olds Cameron Brace and Daniel Catenacci can earn power plays and then make opponents pay.

Defensively, Binnington really only had one off-night during the Sault Ste. Marie series. Whether Owen Sound can contain Plymouth might turn on whether its depth holds up well enough to keep Ottawa Senators first-rounder Cody Ceci, overage Nathan Chiarlitti and sophomore Chris Bigras from being overextended. If it all breaks right, Owen Sound could keep Plymouth at the speed limit and frustrate them.

(1) London Knights vs. (4) Kitchener Rangers

Season series: London 4-2-0-0. Odds favour: London 70%. Most statistically probable outcome: London in 5. Prediction: London in 6.

Why the Knights should win: Season in, season out, the Knights are opportunistic, which is their ace in the hole against a Rangers team which is trying to play Katie-bar-the-door hockey and ride Gibson into the Western final. Kitchener succeeded in making the Guelph Storm squeeze their sticks too hard in the first round. London, thinking of 39-goal scorer Max Domi in particular, has a more established reputation for converting in those high-traffic situations around the net. Offensively, London boasts eight 15-goal scorers who can each go off when needed, be it Alex Broadhurst, Seth Griffith or recent San Jose Sharks signing Chris Tierney. Keeping a lid on them for a full 60 minutes is exceedingly difficult.

Defensively, Philadelphia Flyers-drafted goalie Anthony Stolarz has a 2.15 average and .925 save percentage since joining London in January. That average could be in the sub-2 range if the Knights had not experienced some January blahs. London's already sound defence should benefit once captain Scott Harrington rejoins their lineup.

The Knights might have peaked in January. Their plateau is still very high.
How the Rangers could win: As alluded to up top, Gibson is their best hope. It was not intended to happen this way, but the hip/groin ailment heard 'round the Waterloo region essentially meant the Anaheim Ducks prospect's season was reduced to two stand-alone events: beating Canada and Rangers coach-GM Steve Spott in the world junior while leading Team USA to gold, and helping Spott prove a point by upsetting London.

The Rangers, with their 19-year-old blueline trio of Frank Corrado, Ben Fanelli and puck-mover Ryan Murphy, have committed to their role. That gives them a defensive fighter's chance that they could stay on their feet and stay in the series. Kitchener isn't a high scoring team, but it does have goal scorers such as Senators first-rounder Matt Puempel, Toronto Maple Leafs signing Josh Leivo and Phoenix Coyotes prospect Tobias Rieder, who are each taking their final kick at the can as juniors. They are more seasoned than your typical underdog. If they get rolling, who knows.

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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