No, this is not some desert mirage. OHL hockey is, in fact, back.
The OHL final begins Thursday after an eight-day break between games. And it features two white-hot teams.
The London Knights and Niagara IceDogs have each swept their last two playoff series en route to this clash for league supremacy. London's riding a nine-game winning streak while Niagara has won 10 in a row, with the Knights losing twice all postseason and the IceDogs just once.
One of the journeys was only a tad surprising. The other’s was downright shocking.
The Knights have been the OHL’s gold standard in recent years. They won the league championship in 2012 – when they knocked off the IceDogs in five – and then reclaimed the title a year later. They appeared in their third straight Memorial Cup tournament when they hosted the event in 2014.
This season, the Knights were led by the line of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner – who was named the most outstanding player on Tuesday – as well as defenceman Olli Juoveli and goaltender Tyler Parsons. They scored the most goals in the league and allowed the fewest.
On the strength of Marner’s near-record-breaking offensive pace, the Knights have cruised through the playoffs. The only surprise was their Western Conference final sweep of the Erie Otters, the CHL’s top team all season.
The IceDogs, meanwhile, haven’t advanced past the second round since that appearance in the final in 2012.
They’re loaded with 10 players with NHL affiliations, but would take a step back whenever taking one or two forward. It got to the point where, in February, head coach and general manager Marty Williamson finally voiced his frustration, explaining they were underachieving.
Something in that message resonated with the players because they reached the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed and have been nearly unbeatable in the postseason. They dropped Game 3 of their first-round series against Ottawa and haven’t lost since, sweeping aside Kingston and Barrie – the conference’s top two seeds.
Something’s gotta give here in this 2012 rematch. This is how it could play out.
OHL final: London Knights (51-14- 3, 105 points) vs. Niagara IceDogs (35-26-7, 77 points)
Season series: Tied 1-1.
Prediction: London in six.
Series in a sentence: A rematch of the 2012 OHL final pits teams with long winning streaks against each other.
Why the Knights should win: To say Marner is on fire would be putting it mildly. Marner has 37 points in 14 playoff games and has the potential to set an OHL record for points in a single postseason. The record is 51 points. If the series goes six or seven games, it’s not unrealistic to think he could do it given he’s already producing 2.6 points per game. Of course, it helps that Marner’s linemates are Tkachuk (33 points) and Dvorak (26 points). The three players hold down the top three spots on the OHL playoff scoring list. Not even the Erie Otters, who only allowed one more goal than the Knights in the regular season, had an answer for them. Parsons owns the best goals-against average (2.27) and save percentage (.924) this spring. Plus, Max Jones, a potential 2016 first-round NHL draft pick who was suspended 12 games for a vicious hit in the opening round, is finally eligible to return in Game 3. He’ll bring depth scoring and grit, providing he doesn’t go over the edge as he’s been wont to do.
Why the IceDogs could win: Because, well, why not? The IceDogs have already defeated two top teams in Kingston and Barrie, so what’s one more? To beat the Knights, the IceDogs are obviously going to need good goaltending. Good thing they have Alex Nedeljkovic, the starter for the American world junior team. The Carolina Hurricanes prospect has posted numbers – a 2.33 GAA and .918 save percentage – comparable to Parsons, who was cut from the U.S. team before Christmas. If Nedeljkovic can be the better goaltender, as his credentials suggest, the IceDogs have a chance. Josh Ho-Sang has been excellent with 21 points and Stephen Harper has emerged. Harper has eight points in his last three contests, including five in a Game 3 win over Barrie. The possible return of St. Louis Blues prospect Vince Dunn from a knee injury would be a huge help, if the blueliner can get up to full speed quickly. Losing winger Brendan Perlini until Game 3 because of a suspension does hurt Niagara’s chances, though.
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