March 20, 2012
OHL could use gripping playoff
By RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency
After a junior hockey season spent debating head-check discipline and the future end of fighting on ice, the OHL could use a gripping playoff.
A gaggle of close games. Some stunning upsets. An overflow of overtimes.
It would be thrilling if, once the post-season launches Thursday, the league’s biggest name — top NHL prospect Nail Yakupov — grabs the formerly sad-sack Sarnia Sting, throws them on his back and makes a run, highlight-reel goals included.
And after four rounds are complete and a captain thrusts the J. Ross Robertson Cup championship trophy over his head in May, the victory is embraced with the same passion and zeal as the people of Owen Sound and area last year.
Those are, at the moment, the Hollywood-scripted hopes and dreams.
No guarantees — Yakupov ended the season on the sidelines and usually in the OHL, things play out according to form.
More often than not, two of the best teams in the regular season end up meeting for the big prize.
The clubs with the most world junior players and NHL-drafted talent survive any early surprises and the older, deeper, more experienced squads find ways to chug along playing into the real summer weather.
That’s good news for the Niagara IceDogs, the clear class of the Eastern Conference, and the Plymouth Whalers, who finished on the Western side two points back of the London Knights, who captured their fifth regular-season title in the past decade.
The Knights got there without 50 wins or 100 points.
They are a strong team, but hardly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the contenders.
Niagara and Plymouth were the pre-season favourites. It wouldn’t be surprising if they met in the final.
IceDogs GM/coach Marty Williamson made a couple of big trades, bringing in defenceman Jamie Oleksiak (Saginaw) and forwards Tom Kuhnhackl (Windsor) and Brett Ritchie (Sarnia) before the January deadline. Plymouth’s Mike Vellucci did nothing, already confident in his group.
They are both stacked with veteran NHL-drafted talent and each boasts one of Canada’s world junior goalies: Niagara has Mark Visentin and Plymouth has Scott Wedgewood.
They shared Canada’s crease in Alberta.
They could face each other with a Memorial Cup berth on the line.
(1) London Knights vs. (8) Windsor Spitfires
So far: Teams split six games, with Spits winning two of three at London’s John Labatt Centre. So not your classic 1 vs. 8 seed.
Stars: OHL champion Knights feature seven 20-goal scorers, including rookie Max Domi, and three world junior Ds but their best player is goalie Michael Houser. Windsor no longer has top forward Alex Khokhlachev, out for the season with a lacerated kidney. Spits F Michael Clarke and Kerby Rychel (second-youngest Spit to 40 goals) had hat-tricks against London. Knights 45-goal man Seth Griffith had three-goal game in Windsor.
Game changers: The Knights haven’t been scoring lately. Trade deadline pickups Greg McKegg and Austin Watson must lead charge. Windsor G Jaroslav Pavelka, a Niagara backup in the fall, must stand on his head. Bob Boughner should be coach of the year for getting Spits to the playoffs.
Prediction: London wins, but the Spits don’t go quietly. Knights in 6.
(2) Plymouth Whalers vs. (7) Guelph Storm
So far: Teams split four games, including Guelph’s blowout 9-1 win at Compuware last month.
Stars: Stefan Noesen came on strong late for Plymouth and scored 38 goals. Guelph’s Zack Mitchell had an outstanding year (37-38-75). Whalers GM/coach Mike Vellucci stood pat at the trade deadline because his team is already stacked, experienced and cohesive. Plymouth captain and D Beau Schmitz will start the playoffs on the shelf. Guelph D Matt Finn can bolster draft ranking with big series.
Game changers: Workhorse G Garret Sparks, a Leafs prospect, needs to come up big. The Whalers only lost 7 regulation games on home ice. Plymouth G Scott Wedgewood signed contract with New Jersey while D Austin Levi was inked by Carolina.
Prediction: Whale too mighty. Five games.
(3) Kitchener Rangers vs. (6) Owen Sound Attack
So far: Rangers won four of six matchups, including all three on Aud home ice. But the Attack smashed them 7-1 last month.
Stars: Rangers F Radek Faksa (29-38-67) led OHL in rookie scoring. Owen Sound captain Michael Halmo will miss the series after controversial suspension for check on Sarnia’s Nail Yakupov. Former first overall Daniel Catenacci had 7 goals and 9 points against Rangers. Big Leafs prospect Andrew Crescenzi had 5 goals and 10 points against Owen Sound. Big Kitchener G John Gibson back at full strength.
Game changers: Attack enter playoffs on four-game losing streak. Owen Sound G Jordan Binnington played in 5 of 6 games against Kitchener this season. Watch out for Rangers D Ryan Murphy, who loves to lug the puck. Defending OHL champion Attack, with new coach Greg Ireland, have ton of pride.
Prediction: Attack win it for Halmo in seven.
(4) Sarnia Sting vs. (5) Saginaw Spirit
So far: Sting won four of six, but the Spirit buried them 7-1 at the RBC Centre last week.
Stars: Sarnia has Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk, but little idea what they’ll get from their injury-ravaged forwards. Sting GM/coach Jacques Beaulieu hasn’t iced full roster at the same time all year. Saginaw brought in new coach Greg Gilbert during the season and the sagging club rebounded. Spirit boast four dangerous forwards — Brandon Saad, Josh Shalla, Vincent Trocheck and Michael Fine. Shifty Sarnia F Brett Thompson needs to have a good series.
Game changers: Big D Adrian Robertson’s return makes the Sarnia blue line a lot more steady. Sting G JP Anderson played in the Memorial Cup final last year with Misssissauga.
Prediction: Sarnia in seven. Too much talent to waste.
(1) Niagara IceDogs vs. (8) Oshawa Generals
So far: Central division champion IceDogs were Eastern powerhouse, the Generals were the most head-scratching club. Teams split two games this year, each winning on the road.
Stars: Niagara D Dougie Hamilton (17-55-72) led OHL defencemen in scoring — and only played 50 games. Oshawa’s Christian Thomas and captain Boone Jenner need to light it up. Dogs loaded up front with Ryan Strome, Freddie Hamilton, franchise leading scorer Andrew Agozzino, Brett Ritchie and Tom Kuhnhackl. They boast the league’s best power play at 26.8% and top penalty kill, too.
Game-changers: Gens coach Gary Agnew’s last OHL playoff game was Game 7 of 1999 final with London against Belleville. Niagara’s Mark Visentin, who set single-season league shutout record (10), is likely goalie of the year. Oshawa G Kevin Bailie must shine.
Prediction: Dogs in five. Old Jack Gatecliff Arena the place to be.
(2) Ottawa 67’s vs. (7) Belleville Bulls
So far: East division champs Ottawa captured 7 of 8 meetings. Bulls’ only win at home in overtime in November.
Stars: 67’s captain Tyler Toffoli had 52 goals and 100 points, 13 of them against Belleville. Shane Prince scored 8 times against the Bulls. Belleville leading scorer Brendan Gaunce had 10 points against Ottawa. Star G Malcolm Subban struggled against the 67’s (0-4, 4.47 goals against average, .854 save %) and was yanked twice.
Game-changers: Belleville GM/coach George Burnett has to scheme to shut down Toffoli, who plays a ton. Cody Ceci can torch anyone from the back end. Don’t expect much from Bulls power play, a league-worst 14%.
Prediction: Ottawa doesn’t let last year’s early exit happen again. Five games.
(3) Barrie Colts vs. (6) Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
So far: Majors won 4 of 6 low-scoring games, including two in OT. Colts never scored more than three against Missy.
Stars: No luck for head coach Dale Hawerchuk. Barrie and Canadian world junior F Tanner Pearson out with a broken fibula. Suspended Colts F Colin Behenna due back Game 3. Exceptional Barrie D Aaron Ekblad’s playoff debut after strong rookie season. Majors F Riley Brace had 7 points against Barrie. Winnipeg first rounder Mark Scheifele must fly for Barrie.
Game-changers: Majors G Brandon Maxwell, traded away by Kitchener and Sarnia, has won his team some games. He has plenty of playoff experience. Leafs pick Stuart Percy solidifies Missy defence.
Prediction: Not a Major upset, but good enough. Missy in six.
(4) Brampton Battalion vs. (5) Sudbury Wolves
So far: Split eight games. No team won two in a row. Troops record two of three shutouts in the set.
Stars: Wolves F Michael Sgarbossa (47-55-102) won OHL scoring title, 10 points against the Troops. Brampton’s Sam Carrick, a Leafs pick, led his team with 67 points.
Game-changers: Sudbury didn’t win a game this year when trailing after two, so don’t fall behind. Stan Butler’s Battalion third-best goals against in the OHL. Brampton power forward Mitchell Porowski is a handful. Wolves forward Derek Schoenmakers (12 goals in 33 games) a nice pickup from Mississauga.
Prediction: Dangerous Wolves are a trendy pick, so why not once again? Six games.