CHL Notebook: Slipper still fits for surging Attack

Sam Cosentino and RJ Broadhead discuss which teams are the favourites in the CHL playoffs.

Pump the brakes, or pump the Owen Sound Attack’s tires? While they might only have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs thanks to the OHL’s conference-based format, the Attack go into the playoffs as the league’s most dominant team since the trade deadline.

Most of the focus at the deadline was on the upgrades made by the Erie Otters as well as the London Knights and MasterCard Memorial Cup-host Windsor Spitfires. However, the Attack, solid from back to front with Michael McNiven (Montreal) in goal, overage captain Santino Centorame as a defensive linchpin and three 40-goal scorers, including 17-year-old Nick Suzuki and late-birthday 18-year-old Jonah Gadjovich, have been the best of the league’s big five since Jan. 10.

Owen Sound has an .857 points percentage since Jan. 10, which tops Erie (.800) and the second-seeded Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (.714). Whether that makes Owen Sound the favourite for the OHL title is debatable, but they are the hottest team going into the playoffs – and the one with the best narrative.

The Attack, who draw the Kitchener Rangers in Round 1, are not necessarily a redux of the 2011 team which brought an OHL championship to what is the smallest city in the league by a factor of two. That team could claim with some credibility that they weren’t taken seriously until they qualified for the Memorial Cup. Owen Sound has been too strong for too long to sneak up on anyone this year.

The one area where the Attack have moved by stealth is in the way they have been put together under GM Dale DeGray and coach Ryan McGill. McNiven is the only player signed by an NHL team, although one would have to think Centorame is a young man in demand after a stellar overage season, plus Suzuki will hear his name relatively early in the NHL Draft in June.

The only two drafted players, right wing Matt Schmalz (Los Angeles) and defenceman Jacob Friend (also Los Angeles), went in the later rounds. Leading scorer Petrus Palmu is the Practically Perfect Import, having figured out how to survive and thrive as a five-foot-seven, 172-lb forward before breaking out with a 98-point campaign in his third season.

The only tinkering DeGray had to do was add overage wing Cordell James to fortify the forward corps with some size and bring in another undersized skilled forward, Chase Campbell.

Having the top five finishers clustered in one conference – either reigning Memorial Cup champion London or tournament host Windsor will be one-and-done – probably means the OHL is in for a more riveting postseason than in 2016. Other teams might have more recognizable stars, but the Attack will be a tough out.

Barzal in limbo

As the saying goes, if you want to know whether someone will be playing, buy a ticket. The health of Seattle Thunderbirds centre Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) as well as Swift Current Broncos overage goalie Jordan Papirny is up in the air ahead of the WHL playoffs’ commencement on Friday.

Barzal, as best as can be ascertained, has stayed away from his teammates since leaving the ice before a March 10 game due to concern about mumps.

The best-case scenario, of course, is that these are cases of veering on the side of caution. Teams are coy about player health come playoffs and even if Barzal makes it back for the start of the Thunderbirds’ U.S. Division series against the Portland Winterhawks, there’s the question to what degree he’ll be limited after not playing for two weeks.

Papirny has been off the ice since March 7, meaning 19-year-old Taz Burman might have to go it alone in the Broncos’ East Division matchup against the Moose Jaw Warriors. The two have split time all season, finishing with identical .907 save percentages.

Robertson headlines unique playoff pairing

With draft-year talents such Jason Robertson, Brett Neumann, MacKenzie Entwistle and Matthew Strome involved, the Hamilton Bulldogs-Kingston Frontenacs series will be one of the more savoury matchups for prospect watchers.

Robertson, 17, deserves some sort of special award for having a 42-goal regular season on a team that scored an OHL-low 177. The California-born winger’s 42nd might have been the most significant, since it was the game-winner on Sunday when Kingston defeated the North Bay Battalion to claim home-ice advantage against Hamilton. The result also snapped the Battalion’s league-best streak of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.

How odd does a Hamilton-Kingston matchup sound? No Hamilton team has won an OHL playoff game since 1988. Kingston also takes a dubious streak into the series, since it hasn’t won a round in successive years since 1987, when the club was known as the Canadians and players wore Cooperalls.

The upshot for coach-GM Stan Butler and the Battalion is they will be in the rare position of having the No. 3 overall choice in the OHL priority selection draft. The Barrie Colts, who are also unused to being finished before the first official day of spring, will have dibs on getting the rights to consensus top OHL prospect Jack Hughes.

Abrahov leads darkhorse Olympiques

In the Benoît Groulx days, it was always known that the Gatineau Olympiques were a dangerous playoff team regardless of seeding since they used the full run of 68 games to develop chemistry. That might apply again, what with the way that 18-year-old Vitalii Abramov (Columbus) has blossomed as an all-around player in his second North American season and the turnaround under Eric Landry in the last third of the season.

Gatineau, which is the No. 10 seed up against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs, is 15-6-0-0 since Landry took over. Abramov, a Blue Jackets third-rounder in 2016, has also become a noticeably stronger two-way player, rather than a poor finisher. That, of course, has translated into offence for the Russian, who earned the scoring title with 104 points after tallying 14 goals and 39 points in the 21 games post-coaching change.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Adam Brooks, C, Regina Pats (WHL)

The Pats played 10 games in 16 days to finish the regular season, with the overage Brooks going off for nine goals and 27 points. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ curious-at-the-time choice to draft Brooks No. 92 overall in 2016 as a 20-year-old looks prescient after a season where he and 18-year-old teammate Sam Steel (Anaheim) had a race for the scoring title, with Steel winning 131-130.

New name to know: Donovan Buskey, G, Spokane Chiefs (WHL)

One bright spot from the end of Spokane’s season was the 17-year-old Buskey making his first major junior start, stopping 32 of 36 shots during a 4-2 defeat against Seattle last Wednesday. The six-foot-one goalie, who played this season with the Vancouver Northwest Giants midgets, has been in Hockey Canada development camps.

Spokane missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and is bidding adieu to overage goalie Jayden Sittler, but with the likes of Buskey, they will take some depth in net into 2017-18 – which is also a contract year for coach Don Nachbaur.

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