The Ontario Hockey League’s playoffs kick off this Thursday, March 24. 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 move on to the OHL Eastern 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 Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
(1) Kingston Frontenacs (46-17-3-2) vs. (8) Oshawa Generals (27-33-4-4)
Kingston have run away with the Eastern Conference this season, winning the top seed by eight points over the Barrie Colts. They seem to be the only Eastern team mentioned with the giants of the Western Conference in debates over who might win the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
The Frontenacs made waves at the trade deadline this season, effectively going all-in by acquiring star winger Michael Dal Colle, and defenceman Stephen Desrocher – both from the Oshawa Generals in separate trades. Dal Colle, who has been criticized by NHL scouts, particularly after being cut from Canada’s World Junior team, has scored 27 goals and 28 assists in just 30 games since he’s been in Kingston. Desrocher has also been effective as a big, physical defenceman, and is the highest-scoring blueliner on the team. Now, both players will be up against their former team, with whom they won a Memorial Cup last season.
Beyond those two, the Fronts have no shortage of talent. Spencer Watson led the team in scoring with 89 points, and will be relied upon in a deep playoff run as a playmaker. 6’4″ centreman Lawson Crouse has qualities that can turn the tide of a gritty playoff game, with both his physical, defensive abilities and his heavy shot and passes. Backing up Crouse to solidify Kingston’s defensive game is Roland McKeown, another strong defenceman who can shut down a game. He will contribute to his team’s penalty kill, ranked third in the OHL, which will be important for a team that took over 1000 penalty minutes this year.
The Oshawa Generals surprised many last year, by upsetting Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters en route to a Memorial Cup championship. However, very few pieces of that team remain this year. Beyond the obvious Dal Colle and Desrocher, the Gens are missing Cole Cassels, Bradley Latour, Michael McCarron, and goalie Ken Appleby. In fact, only eight regular players from the 2015 Generals have returned.
The Oshawa team that struggled to even make the playoffs this year does not have many marquis players. Anthony Cirelli, named captain when Dal Colle was moved, is a strong skater who can win battles. Mitchell Vande Sompel is a fast, talented offensive defenceman, and could help to stifle a player he knows well in Dal Colle.
The Gens have a decent power-play, ranked seventh in the OHL, but their penalty kill could be a liability for them, as they lack strong shutdown players who can hold off Kingston’s onslaught. Unfortunately for Oshawa, they also score very little, so will be hard-pressed when forced to play catch-up.
Oshawa’s GM Place is renowned for its playoff atmosphere, and that edge could help them steal a game, or possible even two. However, ultimately they’ll be reduced to a speed bump on Kingston’s path to the conference final. The Frontenacs have not won a playoff series since 1998, but they seem poised to break that trend here.
My Pick: Frontenacs in 5
LWOS Pick: Frontenacs (83.3%)
(2) Barrie Colts (43-22-0-3) vs. (7) Mississauga Steelheads (33-30-2-3)
The Barrie Colts have flown somewhat under the radar this season, compared to Kingston and the Western Conference teams like London and Erie. However, they won the Central Division by 9 points, and finished as the second highest-scoring team in the OHL, recording 4.3 goals per game.
The Colts’ dangerous offence is led by overager Kevin Labanc, who won the league scoring title with 39 goals and 88 assists. His 127 total points set a franchise record for most in a season. He’s joined by Andrew Mangiapane, who became just the third Colt to score 50 goals in a season, as he recorded 100 points for the second year in a row. Mangiapane, with his incredible speed and offensive ability, has turned the heads of Calgary Flames fans, as he has turned into a draft steal after being picked in the 6th round .
Dylan Sadowy, whom the Colts picked up at the trade deadline, has contributed 36 points in 28 games for the team, and has been a great addition to the lineup. Barrie made a lot of moves at the January deadline, also picking up forwards Anthony Stefano and Keigan Goetz, as well as defencemen Greg DiTomaso and Cameron Lizotte.
Barrie has some defensive liabilities, and their goals-against total (207) is a little behind the top teams in the OHL. However, they do have a gamechanger in goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, possible the top netminder in the league. His .921 save percentage tied for tops in the OHL, and he has been rock-solid behind some shaky play in the defensive zone this year. Goaltending can indeed win championships, and a lot of pressure will be on Blackwood.
The Mississauga Steelheads are one of the OHL’s greatest enigmas. Down the final stretch of the season, they were in the vicious tooth-and-nail fight for seeding in the Eastern Conference, with just 6 points ending up separating 4th from 7th. However, on paper the Fish look like a team that should have finished much higher.
Leading the charge is winger Alex Nylander, a projected top-8 pick in this summer’s NHL draft. He won the OHL rookie scoring title by a mile, with 75 points as an 18-year-old, and proved himself to be one of the best purely offensive players in the game. His centre, Michael McLeod, is another top prospect for the draft, and has been labelled by many as the hardest worker in the OHL, with his immense toughness and speed, complimented by a scoring touch.
On the blueline is the often-debated Sean Day, once granted exceptional status for early entry to the OHL Priority Selection. He is undoubtedly one of the best skaters there is, and has undeniable talent. However, due to various factors, it hasn’t quite come together for him. Many still hold out hope he can reach his potential, but he does not inspire confidence in Steelheads coach James Boyd.
Beyond the top names, the Steelheads aren’t a very deep team, and it’s that which has caused them to struggle this season. Barrie has owned the season series, taking five of six games, including two blowouts of 6-0 and 8-0 scores. The young Mississauga team will not be a walk in the park for the Colts, but they likely will not be up to the challenge of containing Labanc and Mangiapane.
My Pick: Colts in 6
LWOS Pick: Barrie (83.3%)
(3) North Bay Battalion (35-23-6-4) vs. (6) Peterborough Petes (33-28-2-5)
North Bay finished the season on a three-game winning streak that locked up third in the conference for them. They finished the season as one of the better offensive teams in the conference, averaging 3.53 goals per game. However, their power-play is one of the worst among playoff teams, successful only 18.8% of the time.
The Battalion are returning to the playoffs after appearing in the conference final last year, taking the eventual champions Oshawa to six games. Among the the returning members of that team are current captain Mike Amadio, who has established himself as a top scoring threat in the OHL. He contributed 50 of North Bay’s 240 goals this season, more than doubling his total from last year and setting a franchise record along the way. Amadio is also well-known for being a strong defensive centre, and is a key piece of the Battalion’s penalty kill.
Defensively the Battalion have some issues, though, and will be in trouble if Peterborough’s offence heats up. Cam Dineen has done remarkably well as a rookie and is actually second in scoring among all defencemen (behind Barrie’s Rasmus Andersson). However, a little undersized, even he could do with stepping up his play in the defensive zone.
Overall, North Bay is quite a young, inexperienced team. They have goaltender Jake Smith, who has 39 playoff appearances to his name, but beyond that there aren’t many grizzled veterans. They are talented, but may lack the seasoning and maturity to repeat last year’s playoff success.
The Peterborough Petes come in quite evenly matched with the Battalion. They have an advantage in age, with 11 players 19 years or older. They also have a respectable offence, having scoring exactly the same number of goals as North Bay this year, although having even more power-play troubles, ranking 19th in the OHL.
Defensively, things haven’t quite clicked for the Petes this year, although their blueline group does have the makings of a solid playoff squad. Brandon Prophet, Dominik Masin and Kyle Jenkins all have a few seasons under their belts, and may be up to the task of stopping Mike Amadio’s line. However, the Petes will have to stay out of the penalty box, given that their penalty kill is the worst in the entire league, at just 75.3%.
Peterborough is particularly good at home, so will have a slight edge in their three games at the Peterborough Memorial Centre. However, they’ll have to steal at least one on the road to win this series. This is quite an even matchup, and it seems the most likely of all the playoff series to go to six or seven games. It’s really too close to call, especially with the teams having split the season series 2-2, but the advantage in experience could swing this to the Petes.
My Pick: Petes in seven
LWOS Pick: Petes (100%)
(4) Niagara IceDogs (35-26-4-3) vs. (5) Ottawa 67’s (36-29-2-1)
Like the Steelheads, the Niagara IceDogs are one of the most confusing teams in the OHL. On paper, they look like a team built for success, with big names like Brendan Perlini and Josh Ho-Sang. However, they’ve been relatively disjointed, and haven’t been able to put the puck in the net. A team with serious offensive talent, like Niagara appears to be, should score more than 213 goals in a season.
However, they are still quite a deep team (on paper, at least). Defensively they’re the second-best team in the conference, allowing fewer than 200 goals. That effort has been led primarily by Vince Dunn, who has not played in March yet due to a wrist injury. Word is that he’ll be ready to go for game one of the playoff, but if he suffers a setback that will be an enormous blow to Niagara’s changes. Another key defenceman in Aaron Haydon was seen wearing a cast recently as well, which spells more injury trouble for the IceDogs.
Niagara relies on keeping the puck out of their own net, rather than scoring in droves. Their penalty kill is second in the entire OHL, and will be key for stifling Ottawa’s scoring talents in this series. Crucial also to that is the play of Alex Nedeljkovic, who hasn’t been spectacular so far this season, but who has proven himself to be good under pressure. He had a large role in the USA’s bronze medal at the World Juniors, and he will be counted on to bring that reliability to the playoffs.
The 67’s are likely wishing they hadn’t traded Travis Konecny and Sam Studnicka now. They’re a rebuilding team, but have actually performed well down the stretch, possibly even better than they did with Konecny, a bona fide OHL star. They could certainly still use his scoring touch, though.
Ottawa may receive more scoring in the playoffs from small Russian winger Artur Tyanulin, who has finally proved he was a worthwhile selection at seventh overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft. He scored 9 goals in the last 6 games of the season, and will lead the 67’s offensive charge into the playoffs.
Beyond him, though, not much jumps out from Ottawa’s roster. They’re a very plucky team, and a decent matchup for Niagara. When these two teams squared off in the playoffs last year, Niagara came out on top in six games. As the old saying goes, defence wins championships. If that’s the case, then it also wins first-round playoff series, and I have to believe Niagara’s top talents will pull it together for this run.
My Pick: IceDogs in seven
LWOS Pick: IceDogs (83.3%)
The Eastern Conference seems like Kingston’s battle to lose, but there are some teams that could challenge them. Obviously, Barrie is in the mix to get to the conference final and win it, and North Bay shouldn’t be counted out, even though I’ve picked them to lose. There are sure to be some tough battles here.