We’re now deep into hockey playoff season, with most leagues either in the middle or near the end of their postseasons. In Canadian junior hockey, every team left in the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL now has their sights set on qualifying for the 2016 Memorial Cup in Red Deer. As we have for each of the previous rounds, we at LWOS want to keep you up to date with the CHL Playoffs. With the first series getting underway Wednesday night, here’s a primer for the OHL Conference Final.
OHL Conference Final Preview
The second round of the OHL Playoffs was over quickly, with all four series ending in five games or less. A couple of major heavyweight teams bowed out with a whimper, with both the Kitchener Rangers and Kingston Frontenacs eliminated in four. Now, we’re down to a final four that promises to be a serious clash of the titans.
(2) Barrie Colts (43-22-0-3) vs. (4) Niagara IceDogs (35-26-4-3)
This series isn’t exactly the matchup everyone expected, as most people (myself included) picked the regular season powerhouse Kingston Frontenacs to roll through the Eastern Conference on their way to the final. However, the perennially hot-and-cold IceDogs shocked the hockey world, sweeping the Fronts handily. Niagara has been a puzzling team for several years now, with a deep, star-studded roster that has routinely underachieved on the ice.
Now, it looks as though the IceDogs may have finally pulled it together for a playoff run. Trading for goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic at the deadline was a hugely successful move by Marty Williamson, as the Team USA goalie’s performance has given the veteran defensive core led by Vince Dunn much more free
dom to take risks and join rushes. Nedeljkovic turned the heat up immensely against Kingston, posting an incredible .940 save percentage, including a 47-save performance in a 6-5 overtime victory in game two (bailing out his team after blowing a 5-2 lead in the third period).
Barrie has more than a match for Nedeljkovic, though, in their own netminder Mackenzie Blackwood. His .921 regular season save percentage was tied for best in the OHL, and throughout the season he stated his claim to the title of top goalie in the league.
Beyond goaltending, both teams have some key assets that make them a very even match for each other. Up front, the Colts’ tandem of Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane set the league on fire in the latter half of the regular season, particularly Labanc who won the OHL scoring title as an overager with 127 points. Justin Scott has also turned heads in the playoffs, scoring 14 goals in 11 games to lead all other skaters.
The IceDogs can counter Barrie’s offensive stars with several big names of their own, including Josh Ho-Sang who has 12 assists this postseason, and Brendan Perlini. Niagara is not a team that relies on one or two stars, though. All four lines can (and have, during this run) produce, as the IceDogs are finally performing like the deep team that they look like on paper. No one player carried their offence against Kingston; instead it seemed like every player contributed on the scoresheet. Pavel Jenys and Stephen Harper are two big-bodied physical forwards who may well be tasked with shutting down Barrie’s fast offence.
Ultimately, Niagara seems like the deeper team here. They are the IceDogs, and that means they’re prone to underachieving, but it looks like they may have actually clicked as a cohesive unit after months of disjointed play. Barrie took the season series 4-2, but Niagara looks like a different team from the last time they met. Earlier in the season, I would’ve had no problem giving the Colts the edge here, but Alex Nedeljkovic looks unbeatable right now. The Niagara IceDogs are my favourite to win the Bobby Orr Trophy.
My Pick: IceDogs in six
(1) Erie Otters (52-15-1-0) vs. (3) London Knights (51-14-2-1)
This series is the battle that fans have been hoping for all year. The Erie Otters and London Knights finished the regular season with the two best records in the OHL, the Otters clinching top spot in the conference by beating the Knights on the final day. These teams have been red hot all year, and seemed fated to meet in the playoffs eventually.
The marquis story of this series will be the final OHL showdown between Erie’s Dylan Strome and London’s Mitch Marner, arguably the two best players in the league. Marner turned up the heat in London’s sweep of Kitchener, as it was his 12 points that put the Knights over the edge, creating too much offence for the Rangers to handle. That adds to his total for this postseason, which is the highest in the OHL so far at 24.
Strome, on the other hand, has also been a huge part of the Otters’ offence, with 18 points in two short series against Saginaw and Sault Ste. Marie. His game extends more to both ends of the ice though, as Strome’s more physical game is often relied upon both on the penalty kill and power play. So, Marner may be the OHL’s best offensive forward, but Strome is likely the best all-round player. The two are known for being close friends off the ice, but Mitch Marner has said the rivalry will heat up when they face off.
Erie has a very deep top six, with draft-eligible Alex DeBrincat – who led the league in scoring for much of the first half, despite his tiny frame – as well as secondary scorers Taylor Raddysh and Kyle Maksimovich. Defensively, they have a player who has impressed scouts this year by improving his two-way game in Travis Dermott, who is another crucial piece of Erie’s 27.3% power play. The Otters also have blueliners like Erik Cernak and Darren Raddysh, who will be needed to slow down London’s high-flying attack.
The Knights are led by Marner and his linemates, Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk, who together formed the best offensive line in the entire CHL, combining for 121 total goals in the season. All three finished top five in OHL scoring, and Marner and Tkachuk are together at the top of the playoff leaderboard – Tkachuk having been the hero of the first-round series against Owen Sound, now totaling 22 playoff points. Dvorak, a talented two-way centre, is the responsible one on the line, having the ability to win battles in the defensive zone and generate offence. The line started the playoffs slow, but pulled it together against the rival Rangers.
A major worry heading into the playoffs was London’s lack of secondary scoring, but the emergence of Cliff Pu as a fan favourite and talented playmaker has put that to bed. Pu, along with overager Aaron Berisha (who put up 45 goals in the regular season) and J.J. Piccinich is part of a formidable core of effectively three second lines behind the top unit. Even Robert Thomas, a sixteen-year-old, has shone in his limited ice time, replacing the suspended Max Jones.
The Knights’ offence is significantly deeper than Erie’s, and their power play – which hasn’t been as potent in the playoffs as it was in the regular season – is bound to heat up again in this series. Defensively, though, the Otters may have the edge. London’s best defencemen are more gifted in the offensive zone than their own, with the diminutive Victor Mete, who may be one of the OHL’s best skaters, and Olli Juolevi, who has enormous potential but isn’t quite at the top of his game yet.
In net, London’s Tyler Parsons probably has the advantage over Devin Williams. He was instrumental in making up for the Knights’ offensive struggles against Owen Sound, and has the OHL’s second-best postseason save percentage (.919) to show for it. He’s more capable of stealing a game if needed than Williams, although it’s unlikely that this series will come down to a goaltending battle with so much firepower on both sides.
The anticipation for this showdown has been growing all year, and with the Frontenacs eliminated in the East many are billing it as the true OHL Final. While that may not necessarily be true, whoever does come out of it would have to be considered the favourite to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup. The Otters and Knights split their season series, 3-3, which is too fitting because this series really is too close to call. Both could conceivably come out on top, depending on so many factors – primarily how well London’s top line performs.
In the end, though, Erie is a better defensive team more suited for a physical seven-game series between divisional rivals. It’s almost impossible for me to pick a favourite for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy, but the difference in playstyle and home advantage could just tilt this in favour of the Otters.
My Pick: Otters in seven