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Top 5 OHL playoff storylines to watch

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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McDavid had 99 points in the regular season (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

Not a true story: fans of other OHL teams aren't even waiting for their beloveds to be eliminated before hopping on the London Knights' three-peat bandwagon.

The league's flagship franchise enters the playoffs in a three-horse race with the deep Guelph Storm and the star-studded Erie Otters, and no more than two will be around by the conference finals. (The OHL could avoid such a situation in the future by adopting a 1-through-16 playoff seeding, but that is neither here nor there.) Meantime, there are manifold mini-dramas unfolding across the league as the playoffs open on Thursday.

Here are five storylines. Discuss the glaring omissions among yourselves.

1. Can the Knights three-peat?

Fun fact: the last two defending league champions who were also Memorial Cup hosts, the 2004 Kelowna Rockets and '07 Vancouver Giants, didn't win the Western Hockey League championship. Each won the tournament, which has to be the ultimate focus for the Knights after losing in the Memorial Cup semis last spring and losing the final in overtime in 2012.

The structure of the playoffs, though, means London will have to get by the 54-win Guelph Storm in the second round rather than in the third. The Storm had the more dominant regular season and has more imperative to win, since potential graduating players such as Matt Finn, Scott Kosmachuk and Kerby Rychel have scarcely tasted playoff success. However, it is awfully hard to imagine a London side that includes four NHL first-round picks joining the ranks of Memorial Cup hosts who got a month off before the big dance.

More power to London if it pulls it off; the OHL hasn't had a team win three years in a row since the 1978 through '80 Peterborough Petes.

2. Will Connor McDavid take it up a notch?

Wouldn't the OHL love that visual — Erie's No. 97 holding the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as playoff MVP some night in May.

The Otters are far and away the best turnaround story in major junior, with McDavid being a catalyst for a transition from a they-put-a-forward-in-net laughingstock to a loaded contender that seems ready to put down roots in northern Pennsylvania. The wunderkind was second in the OHL, only to linemate Connor Brown, in points per game after counting 99 in just 56 games. That's the best season by 16-year-old OHLers since the New York Islanders' John Tavares was with the Oshawa Generals.

The points won't come as easily in the playoffs, but everyone will watch to see how McDavid fights through against tighter coverage.

3. Will a worthy challenger emerge out of the Eastern Conference?

Looking at you, Oshawa Generals.

The combination of Midwest Division dominance and London hosting the Memorial Cup only adds to the dread of having an anticlimactic championship series where both teams are already in the tournament. It's only happened three times in a row, but the last two, Owen Sound-Mississauga in 2011 and Kitchener-Belleville in 2008, each went the distance.

Generals leader Scott Laughton, like current Winnipeg Jets rookie Mark Scheifele last spring with the Barrie Colts, is a nearly pro-ready 19-year-old with a chance to leave a lasting stamp on the OHL. Laughton's regular linemate, Michael Dal Colle, also put up an eye-popping 95 points. However, while Oshawa never gave up the conference lead once it took it in the fall, it didn't completely outrun the competition. It's fair to wonder if it's deep enough to hang in with the West's best, should it get that far.

4. Who will be the hot goalie?

Follow-up question without waiting for the answer: how awkward will it be if it turns out to Erie's Swedish stopper Oscar Dansk, one year after the CHL put the kibosh on drafting European goalies?

The goaltending stock league-wide has dipped a bit from the past two seasons. In 2011-12 and '12-13, the OHL supplied all of Team Canada's goalies for the world junior and each of the netminders named top goalie of the tournament while not playing for Canada, Petr Mrazek and John Gibson, also hailed from the league. Yet there is still talent out there. Darkhorses Oshawa and Sault Ste. Marie count on 19-year-olds Daniel Altshuller and Matt Murray, who each had stellar likely final seasons in the OHL. Top seeded Guelph's No. 1 goalie, 18-year-old Justin Nichols, gradually nailed down the job. London's 6-foot-6 Anthony Stolarz, the Philadelphia Flyers second-rounder, is still far from his ceiling after missing six weeks due to a grisly skate cut. And then there's Dansk, coming off a silver medal at the world junior.

Three of the last four league champs used multiple starters in goal on their march to the J. Ross Robertson Cup, with only the 2012 Knights' Michael Houser going the route for all 16 wins.

5. Do the Kingston Frontenacs win a round?

This was at the top of the charts the last time Kingston won a playoff series. You could look it up.

The Fronts are a "deeper offensive team" than the Peterborough Petes, their first-round foe. Led by NHL Central Scouting top-ranked North American skater Sam Bennett, whom coaches voted as the Eastern Conference's best playmaker and best defensive forward (aren't 17-year-olds supposed to need a road map around the D zone), Kingston poured in 298 goals during the regular season. Nevertheless, since the Fronts haven't won a round since 1998, people are bound to dredge up memories of Limestone City teams past that had good regular seasons but could not advance — think the Sean Avery-Mike Zigomanis-Andrew Raycroft team in 2000 or the Chris Stewart-led '06 team.

Kingston has poured much more into player development over the past three years and used the import draft to get key pieces such as Henri Ikonen and Mikko Vainonen, who won the world junior gold medal with Finland in January. If Kingston doesn't end in the hex in the Hub this spring, when will it?

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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