Nothing a sure thing in playoffs

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Sixteen teams depart on their OHL playoff paths this week. Four are expected to soar above the rest.

Windsor. London. Brampton. Belleville.

The division winners are the favoured clubs to navigate through the first two rounds and meet in the conference championships.

In the West, the league champion Spitfires posted a mighty regular season. The Knights have John Tavares, the top player in major junior.

In the East, the Battalion are capable of catching fire and the Bulls have been there.

Playing in a seven-game OHL final and the Memorial Cup tournament last year in Kitchener is an experience Belleville GM and head coach George Burnett believes his players can call upon.

"Absolutely, you want to be able to draw on that," he said. "You hope it doesn't have to be said, that the players who were there remember what it takes. You know there's going to be adversity and challenges and situations to overcome."

Only the OHL playoff champ goes to the Memorial Cup in Rimouski, Que., in May. The road there will lead through the top-ranked Spits, who moved out of ancient Windsor Arena this season and into the brand new WFCU Centre.

"They're an elite team," Burnett said. "They can beat you a lot of different ways. They didn't make it to (a league-record 60 wins) but they rested some guys down the stretch. You look at London and they hit a rough patch for a while. Windsor didn't really have a rough patch."

There are a couple of darkhorses with the chance to trip up the top squads.

Ottawa is playing to prolong the career of retiring head coach Brian Kilrea. Plymouth has been sensational since GM Mike Vellucci returned to the bench. The Barrie Colts have Brampton's number while Sudbury has a few guys left from their Cinderella run to the league final two years ago.

Because of arena availability, the 67's-Niagara and Bulls-Wolves series rekindle the rare 2-3-2 format.

"It's disappointing because you work all year for home ice and always want to play that fifth game in your own building," Burnett said. "I've never overlooked Sudbury. They beat us (in the East final) two years ago and we played them twice in the past 10 days in close games. It's a new season."

Lineup depth, especially at forward, could be the key. Tavares, the OHL's career goals king, won the scoring title with 104 points -- the lowest total for a league scoring champ since Derek Sanderson had 101 points for Niagara Falls in 1966-67.

"You look around the league and there's more guys with 20, 30 goals now," said Tavares, the projected No. 1 pick in June's NHL draft. "When I first came in the league, there were a lot more power plays -- a lot more chances to score. But guys have adjusted to the officiating. There's better team defence. Now, you might only get two, three power plays a game."

And goaltenders are always a team's best penalty killers. Belleville has the best in Mike Murphy. But Brampton boasts Thomas McCollum, the league's shutout king, after a trade with Guelph.

"It was a good year for goaltenders," Burnett said. "You look at what McCollum has done or (Andrew) Engelage in Windsor (league-record 46 wins)."

What follows is a series-by-series preview with predictions by sports reporter Ryan Pyette.

Head-to-head: Spits 3-1

Matchup: League champ Windsor had one of the best seasons in OHL history. Eighth-seed Attack set record with most combined overtime and shootout defeats (15).

Top guns: Windsor D Ryan Ellis (22-67-89) was league's highest scoring blue-liner . . . Spitfires G Andrew Engelage's 46 wins beat Steve Mason's two-year-old record . . . Attack F Joey Hishon (37-44-81) took over from Bobby Ryan (Ducks) on the Bayshore.

Turning point: Owen Sound dealt power forward Lane MacDermid to Windsor and improved their first-round opponent's grit.

Prediction: Spitfires in five

Head-to-head: Knights 6-0

Matchup: Special teams. London's OHL-best power play (24.4%) against Erie's league-best penalty kill (87%). But the Knights can torch teams with short-handed goals, too.

Top guns: London F John Tavares (58-46-104) won his first scoring title and is the OHL's career goals king (215) . . . Erie G Jaroslav Janus stood on his head for the Slovaks in stunning the U.S. at the world juniors.

Turning point: London G Trevor Cann has made a difference down the stretch. His team enters the playoffs winners of nine straight games.

Prediction: Knights in six

Head-to-head: Series tied 2-2

Matchup: Up-and-coming Guelph traded G Thomas McCollum to Brampton and lost G Jake Fischer to injury so it's Brandon Foote's big chance in net.

Top guns: Guelph captain Matt Kennedy (33 goals) and Saginaw captain Chris Chappell (38 goals) both scored 18 times on the power play . . . Spirit G Ed Pasquale played league-high 61 games and is a top prospect for the NHL draft.

Turning point: Spirit looking for their first playoff series win but defensive-minded Guelph is a handful.

Prediction: Storm in seven

Head-to-head: Whalers 4-2

Matchup: Plymouth has been among the best in the second half after GM Mike Vellucci returned to the bench to coach. Dave MacQueen's Sting have surprised, too.

Top guns: Trade for Sault's Matt Caria gave Whalers F Chris Terry (39-55-94) some help to finish second in scoring race . . . Sting F Justin DiBenedetto showed he didn't need Steve Stamkos to score, netting 45 goals.

Turning point: Whalers G Matt Hackett, in his first starting gig, will have to outplay veteran counterpart Dan Spence.

Prediction: Plymouth in six

Head-to-head: Bulls 3-1

Matchup: Two years ago, sixth-seeded Sudbury upset the Belleville in a six-game conference final. Now they meet again.

Top guns: Belleville F Luke Pither finished with 19 goals and 42 points in 23 games after a trade from Guelph . . . Bulls captain Eric Tangradi scored his team's first goal 10 times this season . . . OHL first pick John McFarland (21-31-52) finished fourth in Wolves scoring.

Turning point: Belleville G Mike Murphy is the league's best. But this round, he'll have a battle on his hands.

Prediction: Bulls in seven

Head-to-head: Battalion 4-0

Matchup: Battalion capable of long streak after 16 straight wins in October and November. Roller-coaster Petes have yet to win more than two games in a row.

Top guns: Brampton F Cody Hodgson had league-high 11 game-winning goals . . . Battalion F Evgeny Grachev (40-40-80 and plus-48) was OHL's top rookie scorer . . . Petes F Tony Romano scored team-high 36 goals.

Turning point: Barrie has eliminated Brampton from the postseason three straight years. The Battalion don't have to face the Colts -- yet.

Prediction: Battalion in four

Head-to-head: Series tied 2-2

Matchup: Ottawa GM-coach Brian Kilrea was born in 1934. St. Catharines' Jack Gatecliff Arena was built in 1938. The 67's don't want their head coach's last hurrah to end in an enemy rink almost as old as him.

Top guns: San Jose first-rounder Logan Couture (39-48-87) enjoyed best offensive season of his four-year stay in Ottawa . . . Big Dogs D Alex Pietrangelo started season at St. Louis, then posted 29 points in next 36 games in St. Catharines.

Turning point: Niagara G Jeremy Smith has stolen games since trade from Plymouth. This time, he can steal a series.

Prediction: IceDogs in six

Head-to-head: Series tied 3-3

Matchup: Majors won seven in a row and 10 of 11 in midseason and finished well ahead of Barrie. But the Colts can beat anyone -- they knocked off Windsor, London and Brampton at home.

Top guns: Majors D Cameron Gaunce (17-47-64) finished second in team scoring by a point behind F Michael Pelech

. . . Barrie G tandem Peter Di Salvo (2.84 GAA) and Michael Hutchinson (3.02) tough to beat.

Turning point: Underrated F Alex Hutchings (34-34-68) will have Barrie charging into the second round.

Prediction: Colts in seven


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