As ever, the opening round of the OHL playoffs was a tale of two conferences. (What a terrible way to start this blog post off I know).
The proceedings Western Conference was pretty straight forward, minus London Knights goalie Anthony Stolarz channelling his inner Ron Hextall and a bit of a test for the Erie Otters from the Saginaw Spirit.
However, the first round in the Eastern Conference ended up being really interesting. For starters, the Mississauga Steelheads took the top-ranked Oshawa Generals to three overtime games, and the Barrie Colts took the Sudbury Wolves behind the woodshed in a series that I thought would be a lot closer.
Then we had two game seven’s. After trailing by a 3-1 margin, the North Bay Battalion roared back to life and defeated the Niagara Ice Dogs by a score of 2-1, thanks in large part to an impressive third period showing on home ice.
But the biggest story was in Kingston, where Nick Ritchie’s overtime goal gave Peterborough the series victory over the Frontenacs, and made the Petes only the fourth team in league history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The collapse by the Frontenacs means that they still haven’t won a playoff series since 1998, and it is far away the most shocking development from the first round of the post-season.
So before we look ahead to the second round of the playoffs, let’s bid a fond farewell to the eight teams who have seen their season come to a conclusion.
Mississauga Steelheads (24-38-1-5 – 5th in Central Division/8th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by Oshawa Generals in four games)
What I Predicted: While I’m having a hard time seeing them making the playoffs this year, I will not be surprised if the Steelheads are right in the mix in the Eastern Conference in a couple more seasons.
What Actually Happened: Once again, the Steelheads snuck into the post-season and gave the top team in the conference a run for their money. Sunrise, sunset.
What Lies Ahead: I might actually have the Steelheads as a sure-fire playoff team come next season. The entire defence is pretty much returning, and they actually have a possible high-point producer in Bryson Cianfrone. However, they will probably need a big season from Spencer Martin in goal in order to do that.
Niagara Ice Dogs (24-35-3-6 – 4th in Central Division/7th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by North Bay Battalion in seven games)
What I Predicted: At the moment, I have the Ice Dogs missing the playoffs, but they might prove me wrong if the young players and the goaltending do well.
What Actually Happened: Although Chris Festarini left the team around the deadline, Brent Moran was alright in a bigger role, and Brendan Perlini had a break-out campaign to lead the younger scorers into the post-season. They just about pulled off a huge upset over North Bay, but it wasn’t to be.
What Lies Ahead: With a ton of 1996 born players on the roster, the Ice Dogs should be in the mix for a home playoff seed in its first year in their brand new arena (the Meridian Centre) in St. Catharines. It’s a little bit early to know exactly how the offence will be, but with Perlini and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe leading the way, they might be the best one-two punch in the Eastern Conference if it all plays out right.
Plymouth Whalers (28-33-0-7 – 4th in West Division/8th in Western Conference – Eliminated by Guelph Storm in five games)
What I Predicted: If the Whalers can answer the questions around it’s new additions, this is a team that will not only be in the hunt for a home seed come playoff time, but they could find themselves once again facing London for a spot in the OHL finals.
What Actually Happened: Well obviously not that. They continued their playoff streak for yet another season, but losing a ton of guys from last season’s Western Conference finalists and bringing in a ton of new faces took a lot longer to mesh than I expected.
What Lies Ahead: It’s the Plymouth Whalers. Do you really think they will have another off year? Both goalies will be back, and the only big name that they will lose to the pro ranks will be Ryan Hartman. Also keep an eye on US NTDP forwards Sonny Milano and Jordan Greenway, who I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the OHL for the 2014/15 campaign.
Owen Sound Attack (31-29-3-5 – 4th in Midwest Division/7th in Western Conference – Eliminated by Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in five games)
What I Predicted: I see the Attack fighting it out in that third to fifth range as the season winds down, but if the question mark in goal answers itself early, this is a side that might be a sleeper pick in the Western Conference.
What Actually Happened: Brandon Hope and QMJHL waiver pick up Jack Flynn weren’t bad in goal, and the squad was pretty solid, but being in the same division as Erie, Guelph, and London didn’t help matters any.
What Lies Ahead: Since the Attack will only lost their three overage player to graduation (the most notable being Kurtis Gabriel), this team should be contender to earn home ice advantage for the 2015 playoffs. Once again though, it will be interesting to see if Flynn and Hope will be the netminding duo once the season starts.
Saginaw Spirit (33-30-4-1 – 3rd in West Division/6th in Western Conference – Eliminated by Erie Otters in five games)
What I Predicted: It might take a little bit for the Spirit’s blue line to get up to speed with everyone else. If they are able to do that, the Spirit should not only win their division, but also provide the Knights with a challenge in the postseason.
What Actually Happened: My faith in the Spirit was a bit off. Jake Paterson, while solid yet again, wasn’t the world beater that I though he would be in his final OHL season. They made a big move at the deadline on defence to add Jesse Graham, but they still found themselves up against the high-flying Erie Otters. They pushed the Otters to three overtime games though, and played very well given the fact that it was just days after the passing of Spirit forward Terry Trafford.
What Lies Ahead: It’s kind of hard to say at this point, the Spirit lose quite a bit when it comes to graduates, but they do have some solid pieces up front coming back in Jimmy Lodge, Nick Moutrey, Dylan Sadowy, and Blake Clarke. Whether or not those players will be used as trade bait to fix up the back-end for the future, remains to be seen.
Sudbury Wolves (33-24-3-8 – 3rd in Central Division/5th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by Barrie Colts in five games)
What I Predicted: If everything goes to plan, and the Wolves forwards are as good as they look, Sudbury has their best chance to make some noise in the post-season since their run to the league finals in 2007.
What Actually Happened: A pretty disappointing campaign to say the least. Sudbury looked to have a division title in it’s grasp around the deadline, and even loaded up a little bit by getting Trevor Carrick on defence and forward Radek Faksa. Instead, things went south late, as they lost home ice advantage and ended up being shoved aside by Barrie.
What Lies Ahead: A pretty interesting summer. The defence will be younger next year, and Troy Timpano might take the full starting load in his second year, even though a nice Import goalie draft pick would help a lot with that if it was still allowed (Thanks a lot David Branch). The biggest question mark will be up front, as the team has five forwards who will be overage candidates.
Windsor Spitfires (37-28-3-0 – 2nd in West Division/5th in Western Conference – Eliminated by London Knights in four games)
What I Predicted: If Jordan DeKort does well, the Spitfires could be in the mix for a home seed come March. But if things go South, this team could be scratching and clawing just to get into the dance.
What Actually Happened: DeKort was replaced early in the proceedings by Alex Fotinos of Barrie, and the team had a chance to possibly win the division over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the later part of the season. However, when Slater Koekkoek suffered yet another season-ending shoulder surgery, things went south in a hurry and they were no match for the Knights.
What Lies Ahead: Though they will lose Koekkoek, Ben Johnson, and Brady Vail, the Spitfires won’t fall too far off next season, especially with Joshua Ho-Sang leading the way and if they are able to land Montreal Canadiens draft pick and 2013 import draft pick Jacob De La Rose. As ever, I expect the Spits to take a run at some college guys, namely defender Will Butcher and forward Nick Schmaltz.
Kingston Frontenacs (39-23-3-3 – 2nd in East Division/3rd in Eastern Conference – Eliminated by Peterborough Petes in seven games)
What I Predicted: For a team that’s only made the conference finals once in their franchise history (in 1993), it’s hard to imagine the Frontenacs actually jumping over that hurdle after years in the wilderness. But if everything goes right for them, a trip to the OHL finals might be in the cards.
What Actually Happened: The Kingston Curse struck again big time, as the Frontenacs will go down as the fourth team in league history to blow a 3-0 series lead, and will also join the 2004/05 Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds as the only clubs to lose the seventh and final game on home ice. They had many chances to wrap up the series, including an early 3-0 lead in Game Six, but they were unable to seal the deal.
What Lies Ahead: On the one hand, most of the top players on the team should be back, with the biggest being leading scorer Sam Bennett. However, overage goalie Matt Mahalak will be leaving town, which means their will again be more questions marks in between the pipes, which could have been solved with bringing an import if they allowed it in the CHL (Again, thanks a lot David Branch.) Plus, given the collapse in the first round, it will be curious to see how the team will try and move on from what happened.
Before we get to my second round predictions, let’s take a minute to discuss the legend that is David Ling, especially with what happened to the Frontenacs in the first round.
Back in the 1994/95 season, Ling went off big time with 135 points to finish second in league scoring (in a tie with Windsor’s Bill Bowler and four points behind Oshawa’s Marc Savard) and picked up the CHL Player of the Year award.
He continued that scoring pace in the playoffs, with 15 points in just six games, despite playing with a broken thumb. But why only six games? Well, despite having a bye in the first round (only 14 teams made the playoffs back then), the team were knocked off in the quarter-finals by the Belleville Bulls, bringing an end to arguably the best squad the Frontenacs have ever had.
Okay, I’ll be honest, I mainly did this just to delay my playoff picks for Round 2, as I am still debating who is going to win the two massive series in the Western Conference.
1) Oshawa Generals vs. 6) Peterborough Petes: Oshawa in five (After stunning Kingston, I expect the Petes to have a ton of momentum heading into the second round. However, the Generals are just too strong in my opinion to be knocked off here.)
2) North Bay Battalion vs. 4) Barrie Colts: Barrie in six (This is a series that can go either way, but with Barrie easily taking care of Sudbury and North Bay having to go through a seven-game battle with Niagara, I think that will be a major advantage for the Colts.)
1) Guelph Storm vs. 4) London Knights: London in seven (Yes, the Knights don’t have Anthony Stolarz for the entire series after his suspension for slashing Joshua Ho-Sang, defender Zach Bell is out for the entire playoffs, and fellow blueliner Brady Austin is not out of action because of mono. However, this team has won the last two league titles, and I picked them to win the championship yet again back in the fall. I would be silly to bet against them now.)
2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 3) Erie Otters: Sault Ste. Marie in seven (Okay this is my hometown bias pick, but my mind was made up during the Saginaw series. With the Spirit pushing the Otters to overtime on three occasions, they showed the blue-print for what can be done to beat the high-flying squad. With the Greyhounds squad being stronger than Saginaw, I honestly think they have what it takes to what some might see as an upset.)
I’m off to try and prepare myself for the two series I just talked about, so I’ll catch up with you all again for the semi-finals.