CHL Notebook: Rating the underdogs’ comeback chances

Logan Brown of the Kitchener Rangers. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

A team is never in trouble in a playoff series until it loses at home, or so it is said, which stirs hope there could be some drama yet at this stage of the playoffs.

The Tri-City Americans, buoyed by the classic big playoff goal from an unexpected source – overage winger Maxwell James’ game-winning goal at Everett last Saturday was just his 25th tally in 238 career WHL games – were the only team able to cadge a road split. Five of the six series still have a sweep in play, with the Hamilton Bulldogs having a 3-0 vise grip against the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL Eastern Conference final.

For anyone wondering, over the last 20 seasons, just fewer than one quarter of semifinal series have been four-game sweeps. Only two playoff springs, 2008 and ’16, have seen three teams break out the brooms at the end of Round 3. The four-donut walkover has also been more commonplace within the last decade – 17 times from 2008 through ’17, compared to just 12 in the prior 10-season span. That’s too small a sample to draw any conclusions from, even if you can hear the knee-jerking triggered by the thought of those weak-willed millennials.

The point is, someone is going to get off the deck by winning at home over the next two days. If not, though, it would be unprecedented. With admittedly no empirical criteria to support it, here is the quick-and-dirty analysis of who should come back to create a competitive series.

1. Lethbridge Hurricanes (0-2 vs. Swift Current Broncos)

Consider this based on 40 per cent Lethbridge’s guile, 50 per cent the unfairness of the WHL playoff format and 10 per cent player health. The Hurricanes faced this scenario in the second round a season ago and Brad Morrison, the WHL’s playoff scoring leader, is taking up the role Tyler Wong had then. Swift Current won each of the first two games by a single goal, but both centre and captain Glenn Gawdin (CGY) and defenceman Artyom Minulin are nursing injuries.

It would be easy to define Swift Current as the team which never does anything the easy way, what with having played four seven-game series in the last two seasons. But the Broncos have perfected the road game of late.

Meantime, while teams can only play the cards they’re dealt, Lethbridge (16th overall in the regular season) wound up getting more rest than Swift Current (second after only Moose Jaw). That … that doesn’t make any sense.

2. Kitchener Rangers (0-2 vs. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds)

It is long past the point for moral victories, but the Rangers holding the high-octane ’Hounds to five goals (empty-netters excluded) across almost two full games is no mean feat. The next leg of the series might pivot on whether Kitchener offensive cogs such as Logan Brown (OTT) can cobble together an attack that scores more than twice in a game. The Greyhounds have been in only two 2-1 contests all season – on the first road trip of the season, and they won both.

The first two games each turned on a video review, one verifying a last-second game-winner and the other negating an apparent Kitchener goal. Whether that matters comes down to how the Rangers process it.

3. Charlottetown Islanders (0-2 vs. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada)

Islanders goalie Matthew Welsh might end up becoming the CHL’s answer to Jonathan Quick rather quickly – playing well, have nothing to show for it since the other goaltender, the Armada’s Emile Samson, is playing even better. The ninth-seeded Islanders hung in well during the first two games against Blainville-Boisbriand, but the Armada got output from resources other than the Drake Batherson (OTT) line and squeaked out two low-scoring wins.

With a locked-in Welsh and a commitment to limiting the damage from the Armada’s big guns, Charlottetown should be rated a good chance of stretching out the series.

4. Victoriaville Tigres (0-2 vs. Acadie-Bathurst Titan)

Victoriaville will have to battle back without the gifts of Vitalii Abramov (CLB), who is suspended for Game 3 on Tuesday as a result of getting a match penalty for a fight in the series’ second game.

Abramov was contained while the Titan won the first two games by an aggregate 13-6, but not having him is a missed opportunity to try to get the one-time league scoring champion away from the defensive duo of Noah Dobson and overage Olivier Galipeau. The Titan have won eight games in a row, boosted by the goaltending of Evan Fitzpatrick (STL).

5. Kingston Frontenacs (0-3 vs. Hamilton Bulldogs)

The Frontenacs won four in a row after losing the first game of the first round, then won four in a row after losing the first two games of the second round. Hamilton has outscored Kingston by a combined 16-4. The Frontenacs deserved a result in Game 3, but Bulldogs goalie Kaden Fulcher was able to kill the seed before it could grow.

Comebacks from 0-3 have happened, but the Bulldogs might just be too deep for the Frontenacs to overcome.

Pondering Petes

The Peterborough Petes are taking one of the first spins on the coaching carousel, with three-time conference-winning coach Marty Williamson and long-time assistant/associate coach Jake Grimes among the publicly known candidates.

The OHL was a better place for having the affable, upbeat Williamson as a part of it over his 12 combined seasons with Barrie and Niagara. It’s worth wondering how big the window is to hire Williamson, who spent this season guiding the Brock Badgers of Ontario University Athletics to the David Johnston University Cup quarterfinals. The Peterborough Examiner reported that Brock wants to sign Williamson, who turns 55 next week, to a long-term contract.

Grimes, the Guelph Storm associate coach, has coached in the OHL for 14 seasons, including a stint as the Petes’ defensive assistant that included an 89-point campaign in 2016-17. He seems to check off the boxes for experience and familiarity factor.

Needless to say, Peterborough and general manager Mike Oke would prefer not to be in a situation where they were hiring after a surprising drop from first to ninth in their conference. The heavy coaching turnover in the OHL over the last two seasons might help any team making a change this summer, but no one wants to be in that position.

Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Juuso Välimäki, D, Tri-City Americans (WHL)

For Välimäki, who missed part of Tri-City’s second-round series due injury, the first 3½ periods of his return did not go so well. First the Americans lost Game 1 against Everett, and then Välimäki had a shot redirect in off his skate for a Silvertips goal during the first period last Saturday. However, the Calgary Flames first-rounder was a presence in all three zones the rest of the way, drawing assists on the first three Tri-City goals (two of the three were primary) during a 5-3 series-tying win. It was the second time this season that the 19-year-old Välimäki has had a three-point effort against Everett.

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