The Ontario Hockey League’s playoffs kick off this Friday, March 25. With the promise of some very exciting series ahead, we at LWOS want give you a full primer to prepare you for the upcoming madness. Today, we start with the powerhouse OHL Western Conference quarter-final matchups. For each series, I’ll give my own prediction, as well as picks from the LWOS hockey department, with percentage of votes received in our poll.
OHL Western Conference Playoff Preview
(1) Erie Otters (52-15-1-0) vs. (8) Saginaw Spirit (24-36-5-3)
The Otters have been the OHL’s most dominant team this season, despite playing in the league’s notoriously tough Midwest Division. Until two weeks ago, Erie had topped the CHL’s power rankings for 15 weeks in a row, and 20 weeks in total. However, the season came right down to the wire for them, as they had to fend off a hot London Knights team and only locked up the top seed in their final game of the season.
This year, the Otters have been led by captain Dylan Strome, who finished the year with 37 points and 74 assists. With a big frame like his, Erie will not only need him to score, but to start playing a more physical game. They have a large supporting cast of high-octane forwards to go with him, like Alex DeBrincat, who led the OHL in scoring for much of the year on Strome’s wing, and whose 3 points last weekend helped secure first place. Alongside them are bona fide top six forwards in Taylor Raddysh, Kyle Maksimovich and Nick Betz.
Erie also allowed the second-fewest goals against in the OHL, due in large part to defencemen Travis Dermott, Erik Cernak and Darren Raddysh. Overage goaltender Devin Williams has plenty of playoff experience, but will need to maintain consistency and provide support for his team. Williams and the Otters cooled off towards the end of the season, which made the battle for first much closer than it should’ve been. However, as Dylan Strome told me a few weeks ago, “it’s a long season, and the playoffs is a totally different game.”
The Saginaw Spirit have been on the other side of the coin this year. Defensive issues caused them to give up the second-most goals in the OHL Western Conference. There aren’t many big names on this team to speak of, beyond Mitchell Stephens, who impressed many at this year’s World Junior Championship for Canada, and 6th-overall pick in the 2015 OHL draft, Brady Gilmour. Goaltender Evan Cormier has had an underwhelming year; his stats are pulled down by a poor defensive team in front of him, but a .890 save percentage speaks for itself.
This was not meant to be Saginaw’s year, though, made clear when they dealt a top forward in Dylan Sadowy, and defenceman Greg DiTomaso, to the Barrie Colts at the trade deadline for a truckload of draft picks.
This all-American series looks likely to be one of the shortest of the first round. That said, Saginaw has fared well against the Otters this year, splitting the season series with two wins apiece. It’s possible that the Spirit steal a game or two at home, but beyond that Erie will look forward to a few days’ break before the second round.
My Pick: Otters in four
LWOS Pick: Otters (100%)
(2) Sarnia Sting (42-19-5-2) vs. (7) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (33-27-7-1)
The Sarnia Sting were the most active team at the January trade deadline, landing the biggest name on the market in Travis Konecny from Ottawa, in a deal that included overager Sam Studnicka. The Sting also acquired goalie Charlie Graham from Hamilton, who quickly became one of the top netminders in the conference after moving to Sarnia.
The Sting finished second in the conference, by virtue of their West division title, despite finishing with the fourth-most points. Nevertheless, they go into the playoffs on a hot streak, having gone 8-2 in their final ten games of the year.
Sarnia has a dynamic offence, led by Konecny who finished with 101 points on the season. Jordan Kyrou, on Konecny’s wing, has begun to break out as one of the best skaters in the OHL. Pavel Zacha will be needed to increase his production in the playoffs, although he has been a key asset to Sarnia’s penalty kill.
Defensively, the Sting are solid. They have the top penalty kill in the OHL, effective 84.4% of the time, and they only allowed 192 goals all year. That has been partially spearheaded by Jakob Chychrun, a top-ten prospect for the upcoming NHL draft, whose physical style can be immensely valuable in a tough playoff game.
In terms of quality, there’s a huge difference between seventh-place Sault Ste. Marie and eighth-place Saginaw. The Greyhounds’ offence can compete with most teams in the conference, with experienced forwards like Zachary Senyshyn, Blake Speers and Gabe Guertler.
Eleven players are returning from Soo’s 2015 team, which was defeated in the conference finals by Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters. As such, they have a more experienced squad, which could lead them to surprise a team.
Sarnia won all four meetings between these two teams this year, three of which by 3 goals or more. However, that doesn’t count out the Soo. The Greyhounds have a marginally better power-play than the Sting, and they have an edge in their record away from home as well – all the more important in a series where they won’t have home ice advantage. This series will be close, and if there is any that could produce an upset, this may be it.
My Pick: Greyhounds in seven
LWOS Pick: Sting (80%)
(3) London Knights (51-14-2-1) vs. (6) Owen Sound Attack (32-25-8-3)
The London Knights enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the OHL. They missed out on the top seed by falling to Erie last Saturday, but before that loss they’d been on a nine-game winning streak, including two against both Erie and Kitchener.
London’s top line of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner is without a doubt the best line in the entire CHL, combining for 344 points. They make up a substantial portion of the Knights’ offence, responsible for 38% of the team’s 319 goals. That scoring total makes London far and away the best offensive team in the OHL (with 24 more goals than the second-place Barrie Colts), and on par with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings for the most dangerous junior team in Canada. They’re also the major factor behind London’s lethal power-play (effective 29.2% of the time). Mitch Marner himself described this phenomenal line best: “It feels like we keep getting better and better as the games go on.”
Beyond the top line, though, London still has some top talents. Max Jones, a projected first round pick for this year’s NHL draft, has had great success with Cliff Pu and Aaron Berisha (the first Knights overager to score 40 goals, finishing with 45). There’s incredible depth in the lineup, with J.J. Piccinich contributing more scoring and tough bottom-sixers like Owen MacDonald, Chad Heffernan and C.J. Yakimowicz holding down the fort defensively (but also contributing to a troubling 1037 penalty minutes with their aggravating and often retaliatory style).
The Knights began the season with a question mark hanging over their defensive core, and some may continue to argue it remains. However, the fact is that the core led by 6’7” tower Chris Martenet, tiny speedster Victor Mete, and highly-touted prospect Olli Juolevi has conceded fewer goals than any other team in the OHL, with just 182. London added to their core at the trade deadline with overager Jacob Graves, whose Memorial Cup experience with Oshawa last year will be a positive influence.
The Owen Sound Attack disappointed some fans this year by standing pat at the trade deadline, despite faltering in the months before. They’re a young team, with 13 players 18 years of age or under, including six rookies. So, they’re looking ahead to future success more than this year.
Nevertheless, Owen Sound does have some noteworthy players. Defenceman Damir Sharipzyanov, who played well for Russia at the World Juniors, is a large, mobile blueliner who could give the Knights offence some trouble. Goalie Michael McNiven, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, has done reasonably well with the team in front of him.
The Attack are a decent defensive team, and their seventh-ranked penalty kill will be important in shutting down the Knights’ most dangerous weapon. They’re also ranked just 12th in penalty minutes, so refusing to take dumb penalties could frustrate and smother London.
The season series this year has not been wholly lopsided between these divisional rivals. London won four games, compared to Owen Sound’s two. However, one has to think a team without much high-octane offence like the Attack will be unable to keep up with the fast and deadly London Knights, who may just be the best team in the OHL.
My Pick: Knights in five
LWOS Pick: Knights (100%)
(4) Kitchener Rangers (44-17-5-2) vs. (5) Windsor Spitfires (40-21-6-1)
The Kitchener Rangers were in the mix with London and Erie for top spot until they were left behind in the season’s final month. They finished the regular season as quite a cold team, going 4-5-0-1 down the stretch, including one instance where they were dismantled 5-0 by Owen Sound, and another where the London Knights blew them out in Kitchener, 8-2.
Regardless, the Rangers remain an elite offensive team in the OHL. They have undersized winger Jeremy Bracco, who joined them from Boston College mid-season, and quickly established himself as one of the league’s best playmakers. He produced at 1.31 points per game, even while adjusting to the OHL. As well as Bracco the Rangers have Adam Mascherin, one of the league’s most improved players, who put up 81 points this year compared to 29 the previous season. In the OHL coaches’ poll, Mascherin was voted to have the best shot in the Western Conference, a weapon which has made him Kitchener’s most dangerous goal scorer.
Captain Ryan MacInnis is possibly the best defensive forward in the league, and the most crucial piece of Kitchener’s penalty kill – which will be of utmost importance against Windsor’s hot power play. He and Darby Llewellyn will be relied upon to smother the Spits offence.
The Spitfires have been stuck all year behind the powerhouses of the OHL Western Conference in the standings. They gave Sarnia a run for their money for the division title, but ultimately fell short.
As mentioned above, Windsor has a strong power-play, third in the league at 23.6%. Their offence is spread out among several key players, led by OHL rookie Christian Fischer with 90 points. Towering centre Logan Brown has contributed 74 points, and several other depth forwards have added to the mix, such as Bradley Latour and Brendan Lemieux.
The Spits are a big, physical team, with 13 skaters standing over six feet tall. Among them is 6’6” giant Logan Stanley, a prospect for the 2016 NHL draft, who has vastly improved his offensive game and skating this season. There’s also scoring defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who finished third in the OHL among defencemen with 17 goals and 40 assists. He possesses one of the hardest slapshots in the league, which he will need to use to his advantage.
Goalie Michael DiPietro can also make a difference in the playoffs, with a .912 save percentage that puts him third in the OHL. He could steal a game, battling against Kitchener’s Luke Opilka, who has been underwhelming in his first OHL season.
This season, Windsor seemed to have Kitchener’s number, even when the Rangers were one of the league’s hottest teams. The Spits took three of four meetings, the most recent of which was a 6-4 win last Thursday. Kitchener’s recent form, and the Spitfires’ goaltending edge could swing this matchup towards another upset.
My Pick: Spitfires in six
LWOS Pick: Spitfires (80%)
The Western Conference seems fated to come down to a final between the Erie Otters and London Knights. These two high-octane, exciting teams seem unstoppable, and shouldn’t have much trouble until the second round, by which point they’ll be well-rested and ready.