OHL conference final preview: Erie returns with ‘extra pressure’ to win

Warren Foegele the hero for Erie, scoring the OT winner in Game 7 to eliminate the London Knights from the OHL playoffs.

Dylan Strome and the Erie Otters know they will be asked about that one unchecked box on their resumé until it’s filled.

The OHL’s Midwest Division seems on course to produce the league champion for the sixth time in seven seasons, with Erie and the Owen Sound Attack getting through to the Western Conference final mostly unscathed. If the league champion ends up being someone other than the Otters, with their mantle of four consecutive 50-win seasons and passel of individual feats (such as Alex DeBrincat’s trifecta of 50-goal, 100-point years), well, that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.

“There’s obviously a bit of extra pressure on us, being here for the fourth time,” Strome, the Otters’ captain, said on Wednesday. “I wouldn’t say we’ve underachieved from those years. The record of the teams we’ve played in the conference finals and final, in the Memorial Cup, is 11-1. We’re obviously doing something right losing to two of the champions there (the 2015 Oshawa Generals and 2016 London Knights). Those are great teams that we lost to and hopefully this is our year. I think everyone on our team marked it on our calendar that we wanted to get back to this spot and go farther.”

The upside of having to beat a fellow 100-point team just to make the third round is that it’s good preparation. The Attack, coming off of a six-game win against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, are pivoting from a team that scored 284 goals (fourth in the OHL) to Erie, who scored a league-most 316.

“It was good preparation,” Attack captain Santino Centorame said. “With the Sogo, they had some depth up front and were a very physical team that you could expect finish their checks. That’s similar to what you can expect from Erie.”

Erie finally showed that the London Knights’ Tyler Parsons could be beaten in an elimination game, prevailing in an overtime Game 7 on Tuesday. Now they have to shoot on Montreal Canadiens signing Michael McNiven.

“We’re hoping that series can only be beneficial for us,” Strome said. “We’ve never had such a tough second-round series in my four years here. London really loaded up at the trade deadline and went for it. Parsons was unbelievable in that series, 40 shots every night, 60 in the last game. It’s the same challenge with McNiven. He’s a great goalie, a very emotional player. He loves the challenges and the high-stakes games.”

The Eastern Conference final between the Mississauga Steelheads and Peterborough Petes might rate undercard status by comparison. What can be appreciated is that it’s a third-round series between teams who were both below .500 at the start of December.

“The community wasn’t sure what to expect from us, as we got things going around December and on into the playoffs it’s been growing and it’s been special to share that with the community,” said Petes captain Brandon Prophet, an overage defenceman. “You wouldn’t expect it to be any different in a hockey community as good as Peterborough.”

Mississauga, which is becoming a hothouse for prospects who would prefer to stay in the Greater Toronto Area, found a comfort zone around late January.

“It took a while for us to play the way we want to play,” Steelheads coach James Richmond said. “We’ve focused more on the development side than the systems side and it’s been wonderful to watch these guys grow as players all year long.

The Eastern final begins on Thursday, followed by the start of the Western final on Friday.

Western Conference

No. 1 Erie Otters vs. No. 3 Owen Sound Attack

Series in a sentence (or two)
The real OHL final? Prove that wrong, Mississauga-Peterborough winner. Prove that wrong. Erie and Strome are 32-9 since the trade deadline, while the Attack with its ensemble cast of scorers is a nearly identical 31-8.

Star power
Owen Sound’s Nick Suzuki and Markus Phillips likely won’t have to wait long to hear their names called at the NHL draft, while Erie 19-year-olds Strome (ARI) and Alex DeBrincat (CHI) are NHL first-rounders.

The last time they played
First meeting in each team’s current incarnation. Only the most demented OHL buffs would know that the Niagara Falls Thunder’s last playoff series win in 1996 before moving to Erie came against the then-Owen Sound Platers.

Why Owen Sound might win
The KISS principle says take Owen Sound, based on goaltending. McNiven is redoubtable as the last line of defence. At the other end, Erie’s Troy Timpano is capable but the team needed bailouts from backup Joseph Murdaca in its final two wins against London.

“Your goaltender in the playoffs is important to make the timely saves and Michael has done that all year and given our group the confidence to move ahead, move forward and play a little bit on the edge as far as taking a few chances and some risks here and there,” Attack coach Ryan McGill said.

Between Suzuki, Petrus Palmu and Kevin Hancock, Owen Sound has an impressive arsenal of scorers. The Attack are 8-0 in the playoffs when Suzuki gets a point. That trend will likely have to continue.

“Nobody’s surprised at how Zuke has got better throughout the year,” McGill said. “He relishes the challenges of playing the top teams.”

Why Erie might win
It would be no shock if Erie, having slayed the London dragon in the series where it really stood to lose face with a feat, got locked in and overwhelmed Owen Sound with its skill. Six players, including all-important overage defenceman Darren Raddysh, have chipped in at a point-per-game clip in the postseason. Apart from Taylor Raddysh (TB), the Otters’ nucleus of forwards are 19 and 20-year-olds, and that added bit of physical and emotional maturity often has more bearing on the course of events later in the playoffs.

While Owen Sound allowed a league-fewest 175 goals, Erie is no slouch defensively, having finished second with 181 against. Avoiding major lapses — there were two sequences against London when they allowed three rapid-fire goals — will be critical.

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Eastern Conference

No. 1 Peterborough Petes vs. No. 2 Mississauga Steelheads

Series in a sentence (or two)
The first point of reference seems to be that Feb. 24 game when the Steelheads filleted the Petes 10-1, but this is a best-of-seven, not a best-of-one. Petes goalie Dylan Wells (EDM) goes mano a mano against his former platoon partner, Mississauga overage Matthew Mancina.

Star power
Mississauga captain Mike McLeod (NJD) is a NHL first-round pick, while wingers Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod are in line to be high picks over the next two drafts. Eight Petes have been drafted, with Matt Spencer (TB, No. 44 overall to the Lightning in 2015) being the highest pick.

The last time they played
2010, first round; Mississauga swept Peterborough 4-0 with current New Jersey Devils right wing Devante Smith-Pelly scoring four goals in as many games.

Why Peterborough should win
A longer series would work to the benefit of the Petes, who are stouter in goal with Wells and on defence along with having the arguably more balanced lineup. They have the capacity, at least by Eastern Conference standards, to wear down teams with an eclectic group up front that includes Jonathan Ang (FLA) and Steven Lorentz (CAR). The defence is also five or six deep, especially if Matthew Timms (shoulder) is able to play. (Timms was injured in the third game.)

“The big thing is we’re doing it by committee, we’re not relying on any one guy to carry our team,” Petes coach Jody Hull said. “Every night it seems like it is a different guy. We’re also getting some very good goaltending from Dylan Wells and Scott Smith in the regular season, and Dylan in the playoffs.”

The catalyst for the Petes’ present-day success was in 2014, when they became the fourth OHL team to surmount an 3-0 deficit and beat the Kingston Frontenacs. Somewhat like Mississauga, that Kingston team was laden with prospects — among them Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson (who’s now on Mississauga’s first line) — but wasn’t overly deep. Peterborough got through with grit and goaltending and could apply that formula again.

How Mississauga could win
It is a given that the Steelheads have a huge edge in natural offence, seeing as how Tippett, with his 44 goals, is on the second line more often than not. Defenceman Vili Saarijarvi (DET) is also the best playmaker on the blueline in this series. Interestingly, on Wednesday each team shied away from any reflection on that 10-1 Steelheads blowout in February.

“It was a weird game – everything seemed to go in,” said Mike McLeod, who had six points that night.

Mississauga might need to immediately chip away at Wells’ confidence during the opening two games in Peterborough. As a matter of fact, Mississauga is 6-0 on the road in the playoffs.

“It’s really been a matter of coming ready to play wherever we play,” Richmond said. “It doesn’t seem to matter to these kids.”

If there’s an X factor, it’s likely in goal, where Mancina is facing the team he was with for the previous two seasons. The emergence of Wells played into Mancina being moved for his overage year.

“Matt is another year mature and he’s going to be a different goalie,” Hull said.

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