At least none of the teams competing in the OHL’s conference finals should complain about fatigue.
Only one of the second-round matchups went longer than the requisite four games. The only series that did included the CHL’s top team, the Erie Otters, who needed just five to dispatch Sault Ste. Marie after sweeping Saginaw out of the gate.
Yes, the Otters, London Knights, Barrie Colts and Niagara IceDogs have all had a chance to rest up heading into the last series before the last series. That should make things even more compelling.
On the Western Conference side, the Otters and Knights are the league’s two powers. While the Otters have had their name etched atop the major junior power rankings all season, the Knights were the ones that led the OHL in goals for and against. This series, which starts Wednesday, has the intrigue of an OHL final.
Moving over to the Eastern Conference, which starts on Thursday, the second-seeded Colts take on the fourth-slotted IceDogs in a matchup featuring some of the league’s top stars. The Colts have done what they were supposed to do heading into the playoffs. The IceDogs, meanwhile, have rebounded from a rocky regular season and are showing the talent a team with 10 NHL-affiliated players should. The Kingston Frontenacs were their latest victims.
So, whose run is expected to come to an end and who should be playing for the big trophy? Let’s break it down.
(1) Erie Otters (52-15-1, 105 points) vs. (3) London Knights (51-14-3, 105 points)
Season series: Tied 3-3.
Prediction: Erie in seven.
Series in a sentence: OHL’s top dogs face off in a matchup that has the makings of a classic.
Why the Otters should win: This series is evenly matched, but the Otters have a slight leg up. The Knights are regarded as the OHL’s premier offensive juggernaut and their league-leading 319 goals show that’s no lie. However, the Otters have managed to keep them relatively in check, allowing 3.16 goals per game in six meetings. Comparatively, the Knights averaged 4.83 goals against the rest of the league. Goaltender Devin Williams boasts a 2.16 goals-against average in these playoffs, the best in the OHL. His .881 save percentage is far from great, but Williams has only faced 135 shots in eight games. Captain Dylan Strome (18 points in nine games), winger Alex DeBrincat (16 points) and defenceman Travis Dermott (12 points) can hang with London’s top guns. The Knights don’t have home-ice advantage – the result of losing a season-finale matchup between the two teams – nor will they have Max Jones for the first six games as he continues to serve his 12-game suspension.
Why the Knights could win: Skill, skill and more skill. The Knights have it in abundance. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner leads the OHL in playoff scoring with 24 points. Projected top-five 2016 NHL pick Matthew Tkachuk is right behind him with 22. Then, there’s co-captain Christian Dvorak with 18 – certainly nothing to discount. The three combined for 31 points in just four games against a talented Kitchener Rangers outfit last round. They will be hard to contain. Tyler Parsons is no slouch in net, either. His .919 save percentage ranks second in the postseason.
(2) Barrie Colts (43-22-3, 89 points) vs. (4) Niagara IceDogs (35-26-7, 77 points)
Season series: Barrie 4-2.
Prediction: Niagara in six.
Series in a sentence: Two hot teams, two World Junior Championship goaltenders, something’s got to give.
Why the IceDogs should win: Simply put, it appears as though they’ve finally put it together. Coach-GM Marty Williamson believes the players have discarded their earlier tendencies to go at it alone and the results back it up. The IceDogs have needed just nine games to get through two rounds, highlighted by their sweep of the Kingston Frontenacs. Williamson counts the oft-maligned Josh Ho-Sang as his best player of the playoffs to date. The 2015 New York Islanders first-rounder has 15 points in nine games, pacing the Niagara attack. The expected loss of offensive defenceman Vince Dunn due to a knee injury definitely hurts, but American world junior netminder Alex Nedeljkovic solidifies the back end.
Why the Colts could win: They came into the playoffs with two elite scorers up front in San Jose Sharks prospect Kevin Labanc and Calgary Flames pick Andrew Mangiapane – not to mention Dylan Sadowy – plus another point-per-game contributor in Calgary prospect Rasmus Andersson on the blueline. Another has emerged in the postseason. Justin Scott leads the OHL with 14 playoff goals, already producing half as many as he did in the regular season. That earned the overager an entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. If Scott can keep it up and continue to give the Colts added offensive depth, they’ll be in good shape. Throw in Mackenzie Blackwood, Canada’s world junior netminder, and the Colts have someone who stacks up well against Nedeljkovic. Blackwood’s .924 save percentage leads the OHL this spring.
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