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Plymouth Whalers best bet to squelch London repeat: OHL Western Conference playoff preview

Panthers prospect Vince Trocheck won the scoring title with 109 points (Rena Laverty, Plymouth Whalers)

Plymouth Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci, already well-liked in junior hockey circles, has a chance to become much more popular. His brethren behind the bench in Kitchener, Steve Spott, could win over Canadian hockey fans still chapped over the world junior championship.

Max Domi had 39 goals during his draft season (OHL Images)
The London Knights — "revered and reviled by every other team in the league," as Patrick puts it — are the odds-on fave to return to the Memorial Cup. Plymouth, with OHL's best post-trade deadline record thanks in large part to scoring champ Vince Trocheck, might not be the only roadblock from a repeat but a three-peat. After all, loaded London are already counting their revenue from the 2014 Memorial Cup, when its current cohort of Max Domi, Bo Horvat, the Tasmanian-devil twins Matt and Ryan Rupert, defencemen Olli Määttä and Nikita Zadorov and 6-foot-6 goalie Anthony Stolarz should be near their peaks as juniors. The crew heading into their last playoff spring — two-time Team Canada defenceman Scott Harrington, Boston Bruins draft pick Seth Griffith, et al. — brings a lot to the table, too.

While London lapped the league for the second year in a row with 105 points, that Whalers outfit with three WJC gold medallists in Trocheck, endlessly persistent Ryan Hartman and forward Rickard Rakell actually has the OHL's best record since Jan. 1. Plymouth missed its shot at London a year ago when it lost Game 7 at home to none other than Spott and the Rangers. Either team, along with the Owen Sound Attack and presumptive OHL goalie of the year Jordan Binnington, could give London a run. Here are capsules of the Western Conference series, making note of each team's record since trade deadline day on Jan. 10. Play begins Thursday.

(4) Kitchener Rangers (17-7-0-3, .685 point pct.) vs. (5) Guelph Storm (17-9-1-0, .685)

Season series: Kitchener 5-1-0-2. Odds favour: Kitchener 52 per cent. Prediction: Kitchener in 7.

Why the Rangers should win: It's a toss-up and taking the Storm shouldn't draw any weird looks. The Rangers bring backend experience through their 19-year-old blueline trio of Vancouver Canucks prospect Frank Corrado, team co-MVP Ben Fanelli and recent Carolina Hurricanes callup Ryan Murphy, plus goalie John Gibson appears to be back to health. Storm coach Scott Walker squeezed everything he could out of underdog teams in the 2011 and '12 playoffs. Guelph is also more offensively balanced, led by 35-goal man Scott Kosmachuk. The Rangers are prone to top-heaviness. The Matt Puempel-Josh Leivo-Tobias Rieder trio combined for more than a third of their goals, tallying 72 of the pedestrian total of 209. Now extrapolate how much higher the percentage could be if Puempel had stayed healthy, if Rieder hadn't been off at the world junior and if Leivo hadn't spent the first three months a different hue of blue up in Sudbury.

Kitchener might just have enough mojo to eke through, plus a healthy Gibson might get the better of recent Toronto Maple Leafs signing Garret Sparks in goal. Who knows what the survivor will have left for the second round, which should be against London unless Sarnia or Sault Ste. Marie upends a higher seed.

(3) Owen Sound Attack (19-6-0-2, .741) vs. (6) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (15-8-1-2, .635)

Season series: Owen Sound 2-0-0-0, but both games were before Sheldon Keefe became the 'Hounds coach. Odds favour: Owen Sound 74%. Prediction: Owen Sound in 6.

Why the Attack should win: Sorry for the chalk pick. Owen Sound has the 19-year-old goalie of the year in Binnington while the Soo's Matt Murray and Justin Nichols both bring promise but zero playoff experience. Owen Sound yielded an OHL-low 160 goals while playing a demanding Midwest Division schedule, while some of the shine of the Soo's makeover came off toward the end of the season.

The rivalry between former 'Hounds first overall pick Daniel Catenacci, who had a team-high 79 points in Owen Sound's defensive system, vs. the Soo's 100-point man Nick Cousins is probably the main plot. The two undersized centres had an intense playoff showdown in their final year of minor hockey before their two years together in Northern Ontario. Catenacci, already anticipating to get a rough ride in the city he asked to be traded from, will be going up against one of the OHL's most antagonistic players.

The Soo has a lot going for it, especially with a premier offensive defenceman in Ryan Sproul. (Owen Sound has that covered, too, with Ottawa Senators first-rounder Cody Ceci.) The 'Hounds do have a proclivity to take penalties, though, and Catenacci and fellow forwards Cameron Brace and Gemel Smith have the motors that make referees' arms shoot skyward. That, along with the experience factor from the goal out, might tip this toward the boys from the Bayshore.

(2) Plymouth Whalers (23-4-0-1, .839) vs. (7) Sarnia Sting (11-13-1-1, .462)

Season series: Plymouth 4-2-0-0. Odds favour: Plymouth 87%. Prediction: Plymouth in 5.

Why the Whalers should win: As noted up top, the Whalers are deep offensively, with seven drafted forwards plus Hartman, whose 18th birthday was five weeks too late for him to be eligible for the 2012 NHL draft. The playoffs reveal depth since coaches can focus more on shutting down a team's first and second line. Plymouth's mammoth wing Tom Wilson, the Washington Capitals first-rounder who nearly thumped his way on to Team Canada, should also have a huge impact. Wilson had an excellent playoff in his age-17 season with 13 points in as many games. The Whalers also seem more likely to get a big series out of a supporting player (think Boston Bruins pick Cody Payne or 17-year-old Matt Mistele) than Sarnia is. Nineteen-year-old goalie Matt Mahalak is going into his first post-season as No. 1 'tender, though.

The Whalers, by the way, are 11-1-0-1 on the road since the Trocheck trade.

Sarnia's Reid Boucher led the league with 62 goals while centre Charlie Sarault topped it with 86 assists and missed the scoring title by a point. They and overage goalie JP Anderson give Sarnia a half-shot.

(1) London Knights (15-8-1-1, .640) vs. (8) Saginaw Spirit (13-10-1-1, .560)

Season series: London 3-1-0-0. Odds favour: London 83%. Prediction: London in 5.

Why the Knights should win: When the Detroit Red Wings selected Spirit goalie Jake Paterson at the last NHL draft in Pittsburgh, the highlights played on the videoboard were of Knights backup Jake Patterson. As Barney Stinson would say, true story.

One-T Jake's evaluation process to start for Canada at the 2014 world junior championship might as well begin this weekend at Budweiser Gardens, where the Knights will come in waves. Saginaw coach Greg Gilbert deserves a huzzah and a half for producing a record above .500 since Trocheck was traded. The Knights, though, can probably sic checkers such as the Ruperts on 97-point scorer Eric Locke and his mates, Garret Ross and draft prospect Jimmy Lodge. London is also deeper up front and at the back, while Philadelphia Flyers second-rounder Anthony Stolarz seems to have settled in as their starting goalie.

(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 btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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