Tuesday’s wild overtime win for the Val-d’Or Foreurs in Game 7 to erase a 3-0 deficit against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar was the perfect conclusion to the second round of the CHL playoffs. It was easily the best series of the bunch (with apologies to the Halifax/Moncton affair) and it set the stage for a semi-final round that features some incredible matchups.
As ever, we start with out farewells to the teams that are now out of the post-season, starting with the Ontario Hockey League.
Niagara IceDogs (37-27-2-2 – 3rd in Central Division/5th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by the Oshawa Generals in five games)
What I Predicted: For me, this is easily the best team in the Eastern Conference. It’s a long way to go until the OHL finals, but I expect this team to be there when May rolls around.
What Actually Happened: A terrible start to the season brought an end to that theory pretty quickly, in addition to Oshawa’s strong play. However, Niagara was a much better side in the second half as Brendan Perlini returned from injury to join newly acquired forward Josh Ho-Sang and the defence was a lot stronger.
What Lies Ahead: I’m starting to think that I was a year early on the IceDogs. The entire defence will be coming back next season and both Ho-Sang and Perlini will be coming back to lead the way up front. The one question mark remains in goal though, as Brent Moran struggled early on as was replaced by Brandon Hope. With Hope graduating from the league, the Dallas Stars prospect will need to prove that he’s ready to become a full-time starter.
Guelph Storm (38-26-2-2 – 3rd in Midwest Division/4th in Western Conference – Eliminated by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in four games)
What I Predicted: I expected the Storm to go into a rebuild after winning the title last season, but I’m starting to think that won’t happen until next year.
What Actually Happened: Exactly that, as the only big player that the Storm dealt away was defenceman Ben Harpur to the Barrie Colts. Guelph was a strong side and could have been a third seed as London struggled down the stretch. However, given the depth of both the Otters and Greyhounds, a second round exit was probably a fair result.
What Lies Ahead: As mentioned earlier, this is where the rebuild officially starts. Robby Fabbri and Justin Nichols are the two key players that are still left from the 2014 OHL champions, and I expect both of them will be dealt during next season in order to build the roster back up.
London Knights (40-24-1-3 – 2nd in Midwest Division/3rd in Western Conference – Eliminated by the Erie Otters in four games)
What I Predicted: It’s a transition year for the Knights, but they still shouldn’t be taken lightly, even if their goaltending leaves a lot to be desired.
What Actually Happened: The goaltending wasn’t a disaster and despite losing both Bo Horvat and Nikita Zadorov to the NHL, the Knights were still a strong side. A lot of that had to do with the play of Max Domi, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, who all had over 100 points this season.
What Lies Ahead: Domi is heading to the Arizona Coyotes next year, which brings an official end to an era that saw the Knights go to three Memorial Cups. There’s a few holes left to be filled on the Knights for next season, but if they are able to bring the Tkachuk brothers (Matthew and Brady), 2014 first round pick Max Jones or current Michigan defenceman Zach Werenski, London might become the favourite to win the Western Conference.
Barrie Colts (41-24-1-2 – 1st in Central Division/2nd in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by the North Bay Batallion in five games)
What I Predicted: With Aaron Ekblad seemingly set to begin his pro career, it makes sense to expect a drop-off from the Colts. However, they still have a number of decent forwards on the roster, which should be enough to put them in the mix to be a home seed in the first round of the playoffs.
What Actually Happened: Like the London Knights, the Colts had three players with over 100 points in Joseph Blandisi, Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane. However, for the second straight season, they were unable to solve the Batallion and had their campaign come to an early end.
What Lies Ahead: Blandisi is graduating from the OHL and Labanc may follow him, so there will be big holes left up front. Some younger talent will becoming into the squad, but they will still be a top team in the Eastern Conference with Mangiapane, Brendan Lemieux and Mackenzie Blackwood all returning.
With apologies to the Oshawa and North Bay series, the Western Conference final between Sault Ste. Marie and Erie has a chance to become my all time favourite playoff series in OHL history, a title that currently belongs to the 2009 affair between London and Windsor.
For those that may not remember that series, here’s a brief refresher. Like the Greyhounds and Otters, Windsor and London were the class of their conference with 115 and 101 points each. Belleville and Brampton were both strong teams in the Eastern Conference and ended up playing for a spot in the final themselves, but this is the matchup everyone wanted to see.
I mean, just look at what each team had for a roster. Michael Del Zotto and John Carlson led the way for London on the back end while Zac Rinaldo and Nazem Kadri were among the top players up front, along with some fellow by the name of John Tavares. Windsor’s lineup wasn’t even more loaded with Ryan Ellis, Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Eric Wellwood, Greg Nemisz and Andrei Loktionov all among the key contributors. Sure Trevor Cann vs. Josh Unice isn’t a pulse-pounding goaltending matchup but they were both good junior netminders.
The series itself only went five games, but every game was an end to end affair that went to overtime. Both teams split the first two games with Ellis and Phil Varone getting game winners, before the Spitfires won three straight contests thanks to the heroics of Wellwood, Loktionov and Wellwood again in Game 5. That last game also introduced me to my favourite junior hockey announcer Mike Stubbs, who I was convinced was going to have a heart attack as both teams flew around the ice.
As I wrote on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, if Erie and the Soo come anywhere close to this series, I’ll be dead by Game 3.
OHL Eastern Conference Final Prediction
1) Oshawa Generals vs. 3) North Bay Battalion: North Bay in seven (The Generals have more depth than the Batallion but after watching North Bay shut down Kingston and Barrie with ease, I really think they can pull this off. Plus, the fact that North Bay swept Oshawa in last year’s conference final has to be in both teams heads as this one gets underway.)
OHL Western Conference Final Prediction
1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 2) Erie Otters: Sault Ste. Marie in seven (If this series doesn’t go the distance, I’ll be pretty disappointed. Future Edmonton Oiler Connor McDavid is probably going to have a couple of crazy games where he will get four or five points, but in the end, I think the Greyhounds overall depth will be the deciding factor.)
Now that we got the big one out of the way, let’s move on to the QMJHL.
Gatineau Olympiques (31-31-0-6 – 5th in West Division/14th in QMJHL – Eliminated by the Rimouski Oceanic in five games)
What I Predicted: For me, this is the clear-cut favourite to win the West Division title. They aren’t on the same level as the elite teams in the league, but Gatineau should be a legit threat to make the semi-finals.
What Actually Happened: Gatineau had to claw their way into the playoffs. However, they were red-hot in the final months of the season and knocked off the third ranked Armada before losing to Rimouski.
What Lies Ahead:
Halifax Mooseheads (32-30-42 – 4th in Maritimes Division/12th in QMJHL – Eliminated by the Moncton Wildcats in seven games)
What I Predicted: Zach Fucale is still there, and Nikolaj Ehlers is back for a second season after being drafted by Winnipeg, but it’s a massive drop-off from where they were in the past. A new era may officially start in Halifax sooner rather than later.
What Actually Happened: Fucale was dealt to the Quebec Remparts but Ehlers was still around and was a man amongst boys throughout the regular season and the playoffs. They upset Shawinigan in a great seven-game series and almost pulled off another surprise in the semis against Moncton.
What Lies Ahead: Ehlers got called up to the Jets for their Game 4 loss to Anaheim and I expect he will be in the NHL come next fall. Timo Meier is still around but that’s about it, and that could mean a long season for the 2013 Memorial Cup champions.
Charlottetown Islanders (35-28-1-4 – 2nd in Maritimes Division/9th in QMJHL – Elminiated by the Quebec Remparts in four games)
What I Predicted: After a youth movement of sorts in the second half of last season, and with Mason McDonald and Daniel Sprong leading the way, Charlottetown should be a lot better this year.
What Actually Happened: Exactly that as the Islanders made their way to the second round of the playoffs, despite losing their top netminder McDonald to an injury in the first round against Sherbrooke. Had he not gone on the shelf, they probably would have given the Memorial Cup hosts a tougher challenge.
What Lies Ahead: With almost everyone coming back next year, this team might be a legit threat to win the QMJHL title. They might need to strengthen the defence a little bit, but I expect them to solve that during the summer via trades.
Baie-Comeau Drakkar (35-25-5-3 – 4th in East Division/7th in QMJHL – Elminiated by the Val-d’Or Foreurs in seven games)
What I Predicted: With head coach Eric Veilleux moving on to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals and the possible hangover of losing two straight league finals, the Drakkar may fall down to earth a little bit this year.
What Actually Happened: They weren’t as strong as they were in 2014 but Baie-Comeau still had a pretty good season, well at least until they blew a 3-0 series lead to Val-d’Or, which had to be just as upsetting for the players that lost the finals to them last year.
What Lies Ahead: The Drakkar will return quite a few players next year, especially on defence as almost everyone can come back. As a result, I expect them to have home ice advantage for their first round series, but it’s still to early to say where exactly they will end up in the grand scheme of things.
Now why the heck is there a photo of the 2012 Memorial Cup champions in this blog post you ask? Well it’s because Shawinigan is the last tournament hosts to win the Memorial Cup and the Quebec Remparts are looking good in their quest to accomplish that same goal, as they became the first host team since 2011 to make their league semi.
With the debate still raging about the purposes of a host team, and the rumours of Sportsnet wanting to change the event into a March Madness/Frozen Four type of tournament, I decided to take a look at how the tournament hosts have done in their league playoffs and in the event itself since the Memorial Cup went to four teams in 1983.
1983: Portland Winterhawks (Lost the WHL final to Lethbridge and won the Memorial Cup over Oshawa.)
1984: Kitchener Rangers (Lost the OHL final and the Memorial Cup final to Ottawa.)
1985: Shawinigan Cataractes (Lost the QMJHL semi to Verdun and lost the Memorial Cup final to Prince Albert.)
1986: Portland Winterhawks (Lost the WHL semi and the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game to Kamloops.)
1987: Oshawa Generals (Won the OHL title over North Bay and lost the Memorial Cup final to Medicine Hat. Oshawa won the right to host the tournament after winning a Super Seires over North Bay in seven games. Have I mentioned lately that the Centennials got royally screwed out of that tournament?)
1988: Chicoutimi Saugneenes (Lost in the QMJHL first round to Shawinigan and were replaced in the tournament by league finalists Drummondville. At the time, the QMJHL had a rule where the host Memorial Cup team had to make the championships series in order to be in the tournament.)
1989: Saskatoon Blades (Lost the WHL semi and the Memorial Cup final to Swift Current.)
1990: Dukes of Hamilton (Failed to make the OHL playoffs. After winning only 11 games, the team declined the automatic invite to the tournament and were replaced by league finalists Kitchener.)
1991: Beauport Harfangs (Failed to make the QMJHL playoffs and were replaced by league finalists Drummondville. Also, due to the fact that the Harfangs home arena only held 2,000 people, the tournament was held at Le Colisee in nearby Quebec City.)
1992: Seattle Thunderbirds (Lost the WHL semi and the Memorial Cup semi to Kamloops. Apparently Kamloops beat the Soo Greyhounds thanks to a goal with only 14.6 seconds left, but I have erased this game from my memory.)
1993: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (Lost the OHL final to Peterborough and won the Memorial Cup over Peterborough. The Greyhounds won the right to host the tournament over the Petes with a clean sweep in a Super Series.)
1994: Laval Titan (Lost the QMJHL final to Chicoutimi and lost the Memorial Cup final to Kamloops.)
1995: Kamloops Blazers (Won the WHL title over Brandon and won the Memorial Cup over Detroit.)
1996: Peterborough Petes (Won the OHL title over Guelph and lost the Memorial Cup final to Granby.)
1997: Hull Olympiques (Won the QMJHL title over Chicoutimi and the Memorial Cup over Lethbridge.)
1998: Spokane Chiefs (Lost the WHL semi to Portland and lost the Memorial Cup semi to Guelph.)
1999: Ottawa 67’s (Lost in the OHL quarters to Belleville and won the Memorial Cup over Calgary.)
2000: Halifax Mooseheads (Lost in the QMJHL quarters to Rimouski and lost the Memorial Cup semi to Barrie.)
2001: Regina Pats (Lost in the WHL first round to Calgary and lost the Memorial Cup semi to Val-d’Or.)
2002: Guelph Storm (Lost in the OHL quarters to Windsor and lost the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game to Victoriaville.)
2003: Quebec Remparts (Lost in the QMJHL quarters to Baie-Comeau and failed to make the Memorial Cup playoffs.)
2004: Kelowna Rockets (Lost the WHL semi to Everett and won the Memorial Cup over Gatineau.)
2005: London Knights (Won the OHL title over Ottawa and won the Memorial Cup over Rimouski.)
2006: Moncton Wildcats (Won the QMJHL title over Quebec and lost the Memorial Cup final to Quebec.)
2007: Vancouver Giants (Lost the WHL final to Medicine Hat and won the Memorial Cup over Medicine Hat.)
2008: Kitchener Rangers (Won the OHL title over Belleville and lost the Memorial Cup final to Spokane.)
2009: Rimouski Oceanic (Lost the QMJHL semi to Drummondville and lost the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game to Windsor.)
2010: Brandon Wheat Kings (Lost the WHL semi to Calgary and lost the Memorial Cup final to Windsor.)
2011: Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors (Lost the OHL final to Owen Sound and the Memorial Cup final to Saint John.)
2012: Shawinigan Cataractes (Lost in the QMJHL quarters to Chicoutimi and won the Memorial Cup over London.)
2013: Saskatoon Blades (Lost in the WHL first round to Medicine Hat and lost the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game to London.)
2014: London Knights (Lost in the OHL quarters to Guelph and failed to make the Memorial Cup playoffs.)
So what can we learn from this? Well besides the fact that how they fare in the league playoffs is pretty cyclical, the host team is almost always in the league finals or at worst the semis. Things seem to be back to normal now with Quebec getting to the final four in the QMJHL, but it’s hard to say at the moment if Red Deer will have the same fate given the current playoff structure in the WHL.)
QMJHL Semi Final Predictions
1) Rimouski Oceanic vs. 6) Val-d’Or Foreurs: Rimouski in five (Val-d’Or has a ton of momentum on their side now after coming from 3-0 down to beat Baie-Comeau, but the Oceanic are just too strong in this one.)
2) Moncton Wildcats vs. 4) Quebec Remparts: Quebec in five (I don’t think Ted Nolan or Alex Radulov are coming back for this one, which is slightly upsetting, but this should still be a good matchup. This may end up going longer than I have predicted, but I think the fact that Quebec had little trouble with Charlottetown will be a huge difference after Moncton went the distance with Halifax.)
As ever, our final stop is the Western Hockey League, which saw one of their division winners fail to make it to the conference finals.
Victoria Royals (39-29-3-1 – 2nd in BC Division/5th in Western Conference – Eliminated by the Kelowna Rockets in five games)
What I Predicted: They aren’t as loaded as Kelowna, but Victoria should have another strong campaign after a season that saw Dave Lowry win coach of the year honours.
What Actually Happened: They were nowhere close to the Rockets in the division race but the Royals did have another solid campaign. The gap between Kelowna and Victoria was clear to see though in the divisional final, despite an impressive Game 4 comeback.
What Lies Ahead: With Joe Hicketts, Tyler Soy and Jack Walker all coming back, the Royals will probably be a strong contender to win the Western Conference next year. Just don’t ask me who’s going to be the starting goalie as of yet.
Regina Pats (37-24-5-6 – 2nd in East Division/5th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games)
What I Predicted: I’m not totally convinced about the Pats’ defence, and I still think Morgan Klimchuk will be dealt before the trade deadline. But the Sam Steel hype train is currently going out of control, so I might as well jump on board and have the Pats as a playoff team.
What Actually Happened: Klimchuk was dealt to Brandon of all teams at the trade deadline, along with other key components of the roster, as the Pats are now building around Steel. They made the playoffs with ease and challenged Brandon throughout the division final despite being short-staffed.
What Lies Ahead: This is Steel’s team and the talented rookie should have a monster season ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft. They aren’t on the same level as Brandon yet, but a young forward core that includes Jesse Gabrielle and incoming rookie Jake Leschyshyn will be tough to deal with.
Medicine Hat Tigers (45-23-2-2 – 2nd in Central Division/3rd in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by the Calgary Hitmen in five games)
What I Predicted: The final year for the Tigers in the Medicine Hat Arena should be another good one, as I think this is a pretty solid team from top to bottom.
What Actually Happened: The return of import overage goaltender Marek Langhamer played a huge part in the Tigers success as they were one point behind the Hitmen for the division. They probably deserved a better fate than a five-game loss in the second round, but that’s how playoff hockey goes.
What Lies Ahead: In addition to moving to a new arena, this will be a different looking squad come next fall. Langhamer, Tyler Lewington, Kyle Burroughs and Tommy Vanelli are all gone, and it’s highly unlikely that the scoring trio of Trevor Cox, Dryden Hunt and Cole Sanford will be back. With that said, the Tigers haven’t missed the playoffs since 2002 and I don’t expect that streak to end any time soon.
Everett Silvertips (43-20-3-6 – 1st in US Division/2nd in Western Conference – Eliminated by the Portland Winterhawks in five games)
What I Predicted: If Mirco Mueller ends up staying with the Sharks, the Silvertips might be in tough, but given how the other teams look near the bottom of the Western Conference, I think they should be in good enough shape to make it to the post-season as a wildcard team.
What Actually Happened: Mueller went to the pros but the Silvertips were able to bring in Montreal prospect Nikita Scherbak at the start of the season. They won the US Division over a red-hot Winterhawks squad and I’m still at a loss for words as to how they pulled that off.
What Lies Ahead: Scherbak is gone but the Silvertips will retain a lot of the players that made this year a good one, including goaltender Carter Hart who was outstanding in the playoffs. At the moment, it looks like they will be fighting it out with Seattle for the division title.
So with three out of the four division champions now fighting for a spot in the WHL final, you could say that the new playoff format did it’s job as the league now has the same model as the NHL.
When it comes to the overall series so far though? Not so much.
Now there was a seven-game affair between Calgary and Kootenay, and both US Division semis (Everett/Spokane and Portland/Seattle) were solid six game series, but it felt like we were going through the motions just to get to this point.
Would that have been the case under the old setup? Well let’s take a quick gander at the Eastern Conference.
1) Brandon vs. 8) Swift Current: This would have been over in short order.
2) Calgary vs. 7) Edmonton: It’s Calgary vs. Edmonton, anything can happen, but Calgary would have probably escaped.
3) Regina vs. 6) Kootenay: Given the way that Kootenay played against Calgary they may have pulled an upset off here.
4) Medicine Hat vs. 5) Red Deer: These two played each other and the Tigers won in five games in what was a close series.
So that would have left us with Brandon vs. Kootenay and Calgary vs. Medicine Hat, and we would probably have the Wheat Kings and Tigers anyways.
What say you Western Conference?
1) Kelowna vs. 8) Tri-City: This happened and it was a four game sweep.
2) Everett vs. 7) Prince George: Everett probably would have won but I think Prince George would have given them a decent challenge
3) Portland vs. 6) Spokane: Spokane did give Everett a test but this probably wouldn’t last long with Portland’s fire-power
4) Seattle vs. 5) Victoria: Another really good matchup here that could have gone either way. I probably would have gone with Seattle though.
So that would have left us with Kelowna vs. Seattle and Everett vs. Portland and again the same matchup would have happened. Maybe the WHL was right after all.
Either way, I still want a 1 vs. 16 format. Kelowna would have come to Moose Jaw this year!
WHL Eastern Conference Final Prediction
East 1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Central 1) Calgary Hitmen: Brandon in six (This is one of those matchups that can go either way as both teams are pretty solid from top to bottom. There’s no real advantage here but I went with Brandon based upon the fact that I think they are building towards a special run over the next couple of seasons. It’s corny I know, but I really don’t have any in depth to add, it’s a coin flip.)
BC 1) Kelowna Rockets vs. US 2) Portland Winterhawks: Kelowna in six (It’s the Western Conference final everyone has wanted since Portland won in five games over Kelowna a year ago. This time around, I think the Rockets have the advantage in the depth deparement and will bring an end to Portland’s Drive for Five. My apologies to Fake Mike Johnston.)
That does it for now. See you all in a couple of weeks time for the OHL, QMJHL and WHL finals.