OHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview
After 68 games, it is time for the toughest part of the season to begin. No more standings watching, it is time to get down to business. The playoffs are here. In the Eastern Conference, the top-four certainly separated themselves from the bottom half of the conference, however that does not mean there may be some tight matchups in the first round.
(1) Ottawa 67’s vs. (8) Hamilton Bulldogs
Last year’s J. Ross Robertson Cup Champs, and Memorial Cup runner-up, the Bulldogs have certainly fell off the top of the mountain this season. With graduating players, and trading away star players such as Mackenzie Entwistle, the Bulldogs finished under. 500 for the first time since 2016. Yet, they worked their way into the playoffs thanks to the help of leading-scorer Arthur Kailyev, whose 102 points were tied for sixth in OHL scoring, and his 51 goals were fourth in the league.
What is there to say about the 67’s that has not already been said? Very deep team at both ends of the rink. Tye Felhaber finished tied for third in league scoring with 109 points, and second in goals with 59. Defencively this team has been dominant as well, giving up a league-low of 183 goals, and the top-six players in the league in plus/minus are all from Ottawa….it certainly helps that Michael DiPietro and Cedrick Andree have been backstopping the 67’s this season.
Most certainly this matchup on paper does not look in favour of the lower-seeded Bulldogs, especially since the 67’s handled Hamilton all season, winning the six meetings between the two in convincing fashion. Outside of Kailyev and Matthew Strome, the Bulldog offence is extremely shallow, and with Felhaber and Austen Keating leading a four-line offencive attack, Ottawa is very capable of coasting through this series.
Hamilton should be able to pick up a win on home ice, but I have the 67’s in five.
(2) Niagara Ice Dogs vs. (7) North Bay Battalion
Another matchup with an extremely offencively gifted club. The Ice Dogs have the deepest offence, not just in the OHL, but in the CHL. Niagara finished the season with three 100+ point players, including Akil Thomas and Ben Jones who each had 102 points. Jason Robertson won the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy for leading scorer as he put up 117 points this season, more than any other player in the CHL.
North Bay really had to work to earn a spot in the postseason. After losing six-straight at the end of February and early March, the Battalion won three in a row to earn their second straight playoff appearance. There success in thanks in large part to their top gun, Justin Brazeau. Brazeau finished second being Robertson in league scoring with 113 points (fourth in the CHL), and his 61 goals were more than any other player in the CHL. He has been a beast from the start of the season, and ended strong as well, amassing 20 points in the final 10 games of the season.
Despite Brazeau’s impressive numbers, that is all the Batallion have to go on in this series. Niagara just has too much scoring, and a much better goaltender in Stephen Dhillon. With the Ice Dogs having one of the best defence cores in the league as well, it will be extremely tough to see if Brazeau has any time to make plays. North Bay was able to pick up a couple wins over Niagara back in November, which may have led Niagara GM Joey Burke to acquire Robertson just over a week later.
Too much offence for one team to handle, Niagara in five.
(3) Oshawa Generals vs. (6) Peterborough Petes
Of the lower seeds in the Eastern Conference, Peterborough may be one of the better teams in this first round. Also, they are one of the hottest teams in the league as well, winning seven of their last 10 games, including a win and overtime loss to Ottawa just last weekend. Jason Robertson’s brother, Nick Robertson has been solid for the Petes this season, as he is the team’s second-leading scorer with 55 points. Ryan Merkely was a big deadline acquisition from Guelph. He brings stability on the blueline, and his playmaking abilities are exceptional. His 71 points leads the team in scoring, and is second among OHL defencemen.
The Generals have been on a run of their own heading into the playoffs. Similar to their first round counterpart, they too won seven out of their final 10 games of the season. GM Roger Hunt made a lot of moves to make this team a contender, including trading to get Brandon Saigeon from Hamilton and Anthony Salinitri from Sarnia. Saigeon has led the charge since coming over from the Bulldogs. His 92 points leads the team, and his 55 assists is tied for 10th in the OHL. Among those 55 assists, a lot of Saigeon’s passes has gone to the tape of Salinitri, as he has lit the lamp 48 times this season, which is tied for seventh among leading goal scorers.
This series will be a tight one, despite Oshawa winning six of the eight meetings this season. Merkley will have to be the leader at both ends of the rink if the Petes want to keep up with Oshawa, and Peterborough will have take advantage when on home ice, as Oshawa has dominated at home, going 21-10-3 at the Tribute Communities Centre. This matchup will be determind by the goaltenders. Hunter Jones has stolen games for the Petes many times this season, but he may have met his match in Kyle Keyser, whose .915 SV% was second-best in the OHL.
Low-scoring will be seen throughout the series, but in the end, Keyser will shut the door on the Petes, and Oshawa will take the series in six.
(4) Sudbury Wolves vs. (5) Mississauga Steelheads
If you like high scoring hockey, turn away because this may not be the series for you. Though Sudbury may not have any 100-point scorers, the scoring is spread throughout the lineup. After being traded to the Wolves from Sarnia, Adam Ruzicka has been a big contributor for Sudbury. Since joining the team, he has scored 41 points in 30 games. Rookie Quinton Byfield has been one of the best newcomers in the OHL. With 61 points in the regular season, the Newmarket, ON native finished third in rookie scoring. The MVP for the Wolves, unquestionably, is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Arguably the best goaltender in the league, Luukkonen went 38-11-4, with a 2.50 GAA and league-leading .920 SV%.
The Steelheads have really been in a slump in the waning months of the season, which means it will be very important for their leaders to step up. Players such as Thomas Harley and Cole Carter. Carter has been a very balanced player, scoring 35 goals and 33 assists this season, finishing second the team with 68 points. Harley has really helped the offence from the blueline, as his 58 points is eighth among OHL d-men. However, it will be Alan Lyszcarczyk who will really need to play a huge role in this series. Since coming over from Owen Sound early in the season, he has been the go-to guy for Mississauga, leading the team with 82 points.
Mississauga finished the season losing eight of their final 11 games. Sudbury was able to win eight of their final 11. Two teams heading two separate directions heading into the playoffs will make it interesting to see which version of each team will come out in game one. The difference will be Luukknonen, and if the Steelheads can find a way to solve to World Juniors Gold Medalist.
Goaltending will be the biggest factor, and Sudbury has the unanimous advantage, Wolves in five.