2018 OHL Playoffs: First Round Preview

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After 68 regular season games, it all comes down to this. The first round of the 2018 OHL Playoffs are set to kick off the march to the Memorial Cup.

The big favourite is the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. They had a remarkable season, with the highlight being a 23-game winning streak. The point streak ultimately ended at 28 games, but it cemented the Greyhounds as the 2018 favourites.

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In the Eastern Conference, it’s a little more wide open. The Hamilton Bulldogs loaded up and landed the first overall seed in the East. The Barrie Colts had the conference’s highest-scoring offence, while the Kingston Frontenacs were the best defensively, but added some game-changing offensive pieces.

Overall, the 2018 OHL playoffs aren’t short on storylines and intrigue. There are favourites who could stumble and underdogs who could surprise.

2018 OHL Playoffs: First Round Preview

Eastern Conference

1. Hamilton Bulldogs vs 8. Ottawa 67’s

How the Regular Season Played Out: The Bulldogs went from pitching a bid for the Memorial Cup to Eastern Conference favourites. 43 wins and 93 points later, and Hamilton sits in top spot. Robert Thomas was a key acquisition from London, go along with Ryan Moore, Riley Stillman and others. The 67’s could have finished as high as sixth, and were locked in a big-time shuffle down the stretch. They have talented pieces and have played some top teams tough, but face a huge challenge.

Keys for the Favourites: It sounds simple, but don’t get intimidated by being a favourite. Hamilton allowed the second-fewest goals-against in the East. They also scored the second-most. So long as they play their game and stay healthy, they should have no problem in the first round.

Keys for the Underdogs: If Ottawa is able to get out to a lead, they’ve been effective at playing keep-away. They did it to the Kitchener Rangers when they stunned them in late February. Sasha Chmelevski is super smooth but will have to carry over his regular season success. Olivier Tremblay has to be better than Kaden Fulcher.

What Happens: The 67’s will put up a fight, but the Bulldogs should make a statement in round one. They have a veteran roster that’s ready for what they’re about to embark on. Matthew Strome is another name to watch for Hamilton. Bulldogs in five.


2. Barrie Colts vs 7. Mississauga Steelheads

How the Regular Season Played Out: The Colts made some savvy additions over the course of the season, and ultimately finished one win and four points back of Hamilton. Despite acquiring their two leading scorers midway through the season (Aaron Luchuk led the league with 115 points and Dmitry Sokolov was fifth), Andrei Svechnikov is their game-breaker. Well…was. We’ll get to that in a second. The Steelheads have plenty of offence on their side, but battled consistency issues. Ryan and Michael McLeod, Owen Tippett, and Nic Hague could turn this series in a second if the Colts let them.

Keys for the Favourites: Stop the Mississauga power play. It’s second-best in the league (25.5%) and quarterbacked by 35-goal scorer Hague. He’s the first defender since 1999/2000 to score 30 goals in a season, and the Colts had a middle-of-the-road penalty kill (10th). They also have to get by without Svechnikov. The OHL announced that he’s received a four-game suspension to start the playoffs.

Keys for the Underdogs: Capitalize on the Colts while they’re missing their game-breaker. Svechnikov scored 40 goals, ten off the team lead, in 20 fewer games than Luchuk and Sokolov (50 each). He finished the season series with four goals and two assists in four games against Mississauga. He’s a top-five pick without a shadow of a doubt, suspension or not.

What Happens: Even though the Colts finished the season on an 8-0-2 run, division matchups in the OHL playoffs are tough to peg sometimes. With Mississauga’s offence, they can definitely give the Colts a scare, and they could knock them off if everything goes right. Barrie will miss Svechnikov and split the first four games. They’ll go 2-1 in the last three however. Colts in seven.


3. Kingston Frontenacs vs 6. North Bay Battalion

How the Regular Season Played Out: Kingston bought, and bought wisely. Cliff Pu gives them experience and a two-way presence. Sean Day is a valuable puck-mover who had 25 assists in 25 games. Gabe Vilardi had a mammoth season in just 32 games with 58 points (22 goals, 36 assists). Max Jones should even be back, which makes them a daunting out. The Battalion are led by Luke Burghardt and Justin Brazeau, and they’re  solid in net with Christian Propp.

Keys for the Favourites: Stay healthy and it should go well. Pu and Jones are Memorial Cup champions. Vilardi and Day are reigning Memorial Cup champions. Jeremy Helvig has played 19 games in his OHL playoff career, and while he’s seen some ups and downs he’s reliable. They’re built for this and if they don’t perform when the lights go on, Jay Varaday will be on them.

Keys for the Underdogs: Matthew Struthers needs to have a big series and Jake Henderson needs to be his typical wrecking-ball self. Burghardt and Brazeau aren’t secrets anymore. It falls on the secondary options now, and they have to produce if they plan to upset the Frontenacs.

What Happens: It’s tough to pick against Kingston. They have everything that scouts and evaluators look for when the OHL playoffs roll around. Don’t let the fact they’re sitting in the third spot fool you, they’re a legitimate Eastern Conference favourite. Frontenacs in five.

4. Niagara IceDogs vs 5. Oshawa Generals

How the Regular Season Played Out: Both teams had outstanding finishes to the regular season. The IceDogs roll in going 8-1-1 over their last ten, while the Generals are 7-3. The two were separated by five points in the standings, with Niagara missing out on third by just a single point. Sam Miletic, draft eligible Akil Thomas and Kirill Maksimov form a potent trio, while Ben Jones had a career year with 30 goals and 79 points. The Generals were a little more spread out, as six players had 50 or more points, including draft eligibles Allan McShane and Serron Noel. This is a true pick’em.

Keys for the Favourites: The IceDogs are favourites in seeding only, but there are a few spots they can expose Oshawa. They had a better penalty kill (80.1% to 74.9%) and power play (19.5% to 18.8%) than the Generals. For those that favour experience in the net, Stephen Dhillon has it over Kyle Keyser, five playoff games to two.

Keys for the Underdogs: While Oshawa gave up the third-most power play goals, they were dangerous shorthanded, scoring the sixth-most when down a man. It’s not like the Generals were overly susceptible on the power play, but it’s a good area to target. Overall the Generals scored 10 more goals than the IceDogs, but gave up eight more. This series should be very evenly matched.

What Happens: Niagara was out in the first round last year while Oshawa made it through to round two. Oshawa’s depth will prove to be troublesome for Niagara, but ultimately Miletic, Thomas and Maksimov will prove to be too much. It’ll just take seven games to prove it. IceDogs in seven.


Western Conference

1. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs 8. Saginaw Spirit

How the Regular Season Played Out: For the Greyhounds? Pretty good. They were the only team to score over 300 goals in the OHL and allow fewer than 200. The ‘Hounds were the only team with single digit losses. They finished four wins and four points shy of the dominance of the 2004/05 London Knights. Jordan Sambrook was a point away from giving them 11 players with 40 points. Noah Carroll was three away from making it 12. This is what they were built for. For being the third-youngest team in the league, Saginaw did well in Troy Smith’s first year south of the border. They finished a point out of seventh and three out of eighth. This is an unenviable matchup though.

Keys for the Favourites: Even if Morgan Frost (112 points), Boris Katchouk (42 goals) and Taylor Raddysh (83 points) go silent, they have the depth to overcome. Conor Timmins came back at the beginning of March, and that’s as important as anything. Keep things clean and try to come out of each game healthy.

Keys for the Underdogs: Mason Kohn and Marcus Crawford have to be big for the Spirit. Really. Big. It’s the last kick at the can for the two overagers, and if there’s going to be an upset for the ages it starts and finishes with them. The Spirit have to better on the penalty kill (78.8%) and the power play (14.7%) too if they’re going to knock off the top dogs.

What Happens: As said above, this isn’t a great position for any team. The ‘Hounds are built to win and win big. Anything short of a berth in the OHL final and there’ll be a lot of angry fans in the Soo. Greyhounds in four.


2. Kitchener Rangers vs 7. Guelph Storm

How the Regular Season Played Out: The Rangers turned themselves into the…less west Windsor Spitfires over the course of the off-season and the first half of this year. Logan Stanley came over during the summer, then they brought in Logan Brown and Austin McEneny at the deadline. With London selling, Erie rebuilding, Owen Sound slumping and Guelph caught in between, the Rangers picked their time to strike and took the Midwest Division. They even plucked Givani Smith from Guelph, who’ll face his former team in the first round. George Burnett led the Storm back to the playoffs, but seventh isn’t where they wanted to be when the season started. Mix in a woeful February for Ryan Merkley, and it’s been a bumpy couple of months for Guelph who finished the season 3-5-2.

Keys for the Favourites: The Rangers just need to start on time. They had issues doing that throughout periods of the backstretch of the season, but if they do that they’ll be fine. The big question will be goaltending. All eyes will be on Mario Culina and, if he falters, Luke Richardson. Culina’s numbers with Kitchener resided in a whole other universe than when he was with Sudbury. That was the regular season though. Now they’ll find out if that investment paid off.

Keys for the Underdogs: The Merkley from March (eight points in nine games) needs to stick around. Isaac Ratcliffe was also held scoreless in just one March game, so if they’re clicking, Guelph can give Kitchener trouble. If they want, taking a page from a couple of Eastern Conference playbooks may help them out. The Rangers struggled against the Sudbury Wolves, Ottawa 67’s and Oshawa Generals when all three clogged the neutral zone, kept the Rangers from skating and dumped the puck in consistently.

What Happens: The Guelph stars will have their moments, but Kitchener is too much to handle when fully healthy. They nursed some of their key players back to full health down the stretch and dealt with constant questions about their effort from a fevered market. They should be looking to make a statement. Rangers in five.


3. Sarnia Sting vs 6. Windsor Spitfires

How the Regular Season Played Out: It’s been exactly ten years since the Sarnia Sting made it past the first round of the OHL playoffs. Dave MacQueen was the head coach and Steven Stamkos scored 58 goals. Now Derian Hatcher is heading things up and Jordan Kyrou is the scoring machine (109 points). Offensively the Sting ended up with scoring spread out in a similar manner to the Greyhounds (nine players with 40 or more points), but were victims of chasing a historically good team with their 97-point, 46 win season. The Spitfires sold off some key contributors throughout the year, but still boast the OHL’s top goaltender in Michael DiPietro. The Vancouver Canucks prospect finished the year 29-21-3-1, and was top five in goals-against average and save percentage. He was responsible for all but three of Windsor’s wins.

Keys for the Favourites: Capitalize on the power play. Windsor took the fourth-fewest penalties in the league this year. If they do get into penalty trouble, however, Sarnia’s fifth-ranked power play (24.2%) will face the fifth-ranked penalty kill (81.2%). Fifth-year man Justin Fazio had an outstanding season between the pipes of his own, so he’ll need to carry that into the postseason.

Keys for the Underdogs: If DiPietro can steal two games, then you take your chances with what happens in the other five. He’s fully capable of doing just that, but he’s struggled against the Sting this year. DiPietro is 1-3, allowing three or more goals in three of those games. That one win though? A 43-save shutout. If he posts two efforts like that in the first four games, Sting fans may be sweating given Sarnia’s playoff history.

What Happens: DiPietro will still win one, but the Sting come out strong. Those painful memories of first round exits will be laid to rest in the past. Jonathan Ang is the ‘surprise’ star of the first round. Sting in five.


4. Owen Sound vs 5. London Knights

How the Regular Season Played Out: The London Knights were a ‘rebuilding’ team and finished two points away from having home ice advantage in round one. London shipped out Miletic, Thomas, Pu and Jones, replacing them with Nathan Dunkley (24 points in 29 games), a suddenly surging Liam Foudy, and the ever-present Evan Bouchard. After a sluggish first month, Bouchard has been the most dominant draft eligible not named Svechnikov in the OHL. The Attack’s Nick Suzuki capped his first 100 point season with back-to-back three point games, but offence wasn’t the problem. Owen Sound scored the third-most goals in the West, but allowed the fourth-most. Suzuki, Kevin Hancock, Aidan Dudas and Maksim Sushko will all score, but it will come down to goaltending.

Keys for the Favourites: Stop. The. Puck. Or just score a whole lot more than the other guys. Owen Sound scored 40 more goals than the second place Kitchener Rangers this season. Only the Greyhounds, Sting and Colts (297) scored more than them. Their power play is better than London’s and they finished sixth and seventh in penalty killing. If they can’t keep it out of their own net though, it’ll put pressure on their key players.

Keys for the Underdogs: The Knights went 7-3 down the stretch, and need Bouchard, Dunkley and Foudy to keep going at their present clip. While the Attack have struggled in net, Joseph Raaymakers has stabilized the Knights’ crease after a rocky start. He saw some struggles at the end of February and through March, but if he can rediscover his early season form, the Knights will be ok.

What Happens: At least three games will have 12+ combined goals. Owen Sound wins two of them, and the Bayshore is rocking in a pivotal game seven. Attack in seven.