OHL playoff preview: Round 1 matchups stocked with draft prospects

London Knights defenceman Evan Bouchard. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Playing for league history courts a backfire, but the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds had a point to prove, evidently.

It was curious, telling even, that while other OHL teams scratched stars on the weekend, Sault Ste. Marie brought out the big guns – Morgan Frost, Taylor Raddysh, Tim Gettinger, Conor Timmins, et al., although Boris Katchouk got the day off – against the London Knights on Sunday. That gave Sault Ste. Marie a better chance of winning and matching the 2004-05 Knights’s OHL record of finishing with just seven regulation losses. Just a little something that people can play up in 2038 when they celebrate the 20th anniversary of this charmed season, eh?

Sault Ste. Marie went 55-7-3-3 while leading the OHL in goals scored and fewest goals allowed. The 2015 Greyhounds rang up similarly gaudy numbers, too, although it was their misfortune to be in the same conference with Connor McDavid.

The two-conference playoff format in the OHL is far from perfect, but scouts will probably love the pairings with potential NHL first-round choices on both sides – Mississauga-Barrie, Oshawa-Niagara and London-Owen Sound – all involve teams in relative travel proximity. That Knights-Attack matchup might well be the five-alarm chili that saves OHL watchers from some bland concoctions. Mississauga-Barrie could also be a four or 4½, tops.

Both No. 3 seeds, the Sarnia Sting and Kingston Frontenacs, offer similarly combustible combinations of highly potent scoring punch and inconsistencies that tease long-tormented fanbases. But history doesn’t play the games.

Three series open on Thursday, with the other five getting underway on Friday.

Eastern Conference

(1) Hamilton Bulldogs vs. (8) Ottawa 67’s

Regular-season series: Hamilton 5-0-0

Draft-eligible players

Hamilton: G Nick Donofrio, C Brandon Saigeon

Ottawa: D Kevin Bahl, C Samuel Bitten, RW Kody Clark, C Mitchell Hoelscher, D Carter Robertson, D Merrick Rippon

Player to watch

Hamilton: C Robert Thomas (STL), anointed the conference’s smartest player and second-best playmaker in the OHL coaches’ poll, will have a huge hand in helping the Bulldogs find their playoff fate.

Ottawa: C Sasha Chmelevski (SJS), the biggest spoils of the 2016 Travis Konecny trade, had 19 goals and 53 points over the season’s final 31 games.

#TheMoreYouKnow: The last Ottawa-Hamilton major junior series was in 1971. Moving to the present, the Bulldogs penalty killing (77.1 per cent) and the 67’s power play (16.3 per cent) are each second-worst among playoff teams.

How they match up: The Bulldogs outscored Ottawa 26-8 during the season series, so their money-line odds are probably Cris Cyborg-esque. They could get a quick knockout. Thomas is the lone top-25 scorer in the lineup, but nine Bulldogs contributed at least 48 points and plentiful elder leadership on the back end paid off in the OHL’s third-best defensive record. Ottawa, as evidenced by having six players among the top 100 in Central Scouting’s midterm North American rankings, is a year away.

(2) Barrie Colts vs. (7) Mississauga Steelheads

Regular-season series: Mississauga 4-2-0

Draft-eligible players

Barrie: RW Andrei Svechnikov, NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater; D Tyler Tucker

Mississauga: G Jacob Ingham, C Ryan McLeod, LW Albert Michnac

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Player to watch

Barrie: Obvious point is obvious – Svechnikov has scored nearly a goal per game (40 in 44) and has a point in 26 of 27 OHL games since Christmas. The checking gets tighter in the playoffs but at 6-foot-3 and 184 pounds, he can protect the puck.

Mississauga: RW Owen Tippett (FLA), a.k.a. Ginger Snipes, has 90 goals in 131 games since the start of 2016-17 and is arguably the most lethal finisher in the league.

#TheMoreYouKnow: The Colts’s Aaron Luchuk (OTT) and Dmitry Sokolov (MIN) are the first OHL teammates to each hit the 50-goal milestone since 2005-06. Luchuk, who won the scoring title with 115 points, began the season in Windsor. Sokolov was picked up from Sudbury.

How they match up: Mercurial Mississauga badly wanted this matchup, since Barrie is willing to get into a speed skating meet and has a less imposing back end than Hamilton or Kingston. Each team is stocked with speedsters and NHL first-round talent, so there could be 7-6 games and 40-shot nights on the regular for Ingham and Colts overage goalie Leo Lazarev. Predicting the winner and duration is akin to handicapping a UFC fight between knockout artists who each have suspect chins. For what it might be worth, the Colts, on a 10-game point streak, are running closer to their peak than they did in the lead-up to their 2-versus-7 series against Mississauga in 2016 that went seven games. It will come down to Barrie’s reliability against Mississauga’s potential. And goaltending. Gotta have goaltending.

(3) Kingston Frontenacs vs. (6) North Bay Battalion

Regular-season series: Kingston 3-1, one shootout win

Draft-eligible players

Kingston: RW Linus Nyman

North Bay: RW Justin Brazeau, C Luke Burghardt, C Matthew Struthers, D Adam Thilander

Player to watch

Kingston: C Gabriel Vilardi (LAK) can take over a game, now that he is healthy and gracing his hometown team.

North Bay: G Christian Propp finished fourth with a 2.81 goals-against average and sixth with a .910 save percentage, and Kingston has been hot-tendered – see Alex Nedeljkovic with the 2016 IceDogs or Andrew D’Agostini with the 2014 Peterborough Petes – in even years.

#TheMoreYouKnow: First OHL playoff series for Fronts coach Jay Varady and the 32nd for Battalion coach-GM Stan Butler, although Varady steered the Sioux City Musketeers to the USHL Clark Cup final last spring.

How they match up: An on-paper mismatch – important qualifier? – since Kingston has a 7-0 advantage in drafted players who are healthy since D Sean Day (NYR) has rejoined its back end. Goalie Jeremy Helvig (CAR) is also well-seasoned while neither Battalion goalie has played in the post-season. That said, Kingston plateaued over the final 10 games and needs that MasterCard Memorial Cup experience – Day, Vilardi and Cliff Pu (BUF) – it paid to acquire in January to kick in for the post-season.

The Battalion should be able to get a buy-in for trying to be a giant-killer. The rub there is North Bay’s prep time has been hurt by being bumped from the North Bay Memorial Gardens for the world women’s curling championship. The Battalion will be playing with house money if they get a split in Kingston. Game 3 will be in Sudbury due to the curling conflict.

(4) Niagara IceDogs vs. (5) Oshawa Generals

Regular-season series: 1-1 split, Niagara win in overtime, Oshawa win in shootout

Draft-eligible players

Niagara: C Akil Thomas, D Justin MacPherson

Oshawa: RW Serron Noel, C Allan McShane, D Nico Gross, D William Ennis, LW Renars Krastenbergs

Player to watch

Niagara: Don’t overthink; it’s all about the two NHL first-round talents. Akil Thomas is the quintessential 17-going-on-23 centre, whose 59 assists were second only to Evan Bouchard among draft-season OHLers.

Oshawa: The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Noel is growing into the Blake Wheeler prototype as a power winger who is big and quick.

#TheMoreYouKnow: Sixth time in 11 seasons that the ’Dogs and Gens have met in the post-season. The 905 Rivalry – patent pending – has yet to have a sweep or a seven-gamer.

How they match up: The history is leavened by the OHL schedule-maker, since these teams haven’t played since Oct. 26. Once the feeling-out period ends, it could be a long series. The IceDogs’ confidence is justifiable – seven-game win streak that includes beating No. 1-seed Hamilton twice and healthy returns from core players such as leading scorer Sam Miletic (92 points) and 19-year-old D William Lochead. Niagara has speed and more top-end scoring; fourth-leading scorer Ben Jones (VGK) actually had more points than Generals scoring leader Sam Studnicka (BOS). That segues into how it is impressive that Oshawa sustained itself through scoring by committee with 11 players scoring at least 15 goals. As long as the Generals and D Matt Brassard (VAN) defend soundly and avoid exposing the soft underbelly of a sub-75 per cent penalty kill (worst among playoff teams), they’ll make a series of it.

Western Conference

(1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. (8) Saginaw Spirit

Regular-season series: Sault Ste. Marie 7-0-1, with one overtime win.

Draft-eligible players

Sault Ste. Marie: C Barrett Hayton, D Rasmus Sandin, D Mac Hollowell

Saginaw: C Blade Jenkins, C Maxim Grondin, C Damien Giroux, D Caleb Everett

Player to watch

Sault Ste. Marie: C Morgan Frost (PHI) finished second in scoring with 112 points and tied an OHL record with a plus-70 rating.

Saginaw: D Keaton Middleton (TOR) has had only 42 points in two seasons since being taken No. 101 in 2016 as part of Toronto’s Costco splurge on big bodies. The now 6-foot-6, 240-pound defenceman has the tall task of leading the defensive effort to try to slow down the ’Hounds.

#TheMoreYouKnow: On April 9, 2012, Michael Fine scored a natural hat trick to help Saginaw go up 2-1 on London in the second round. It appeared the Spirit had risen on that Easter Monday, but they are 1-19 in post-season games since.

How they match up: They do not. The ’Hounds are No. 1 in the CHL Top 10 for myriad reasons, including the Team Canada trio of Katchouk (TB), Raddysh (TB) and Timmins (COL). The one slip-up against Saginaw, a 6-5 shootout loss on Feb. 14, looks like an anomaly since the ’Hounds, who were resting No. 1 goalie Matthew Villalta (LAK), had a 42-25 edge on the shot counter. The Spirit are here for experience.

(2) Kitchener Rangers vs. (7) Guelph Storm

Regular-season series: Kitchener 5-2-1, with one overtime win

Draft-eligible players

Kitchener: D Giovanni Valati, C Riley Damiani, C Rickard Hugg, C Adam Liska

Guelph: C Cam Hillis, D Ryan Merkley

Player to watch

Kitchener: RW Givani Smith (DET), a Red Wings second-rounder, faces the Storm team he graced for 3½ seasons, which seems like an ideal way to rage-fuel for the anticipated Rangers-Sarnia Sting second-round series.

Guelph: RW Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI) hit the 40-goal milestone thanks in part to scoring in each of the last four Storm-Rangers matchups.

#TheMoreYouKnow: The drive from one arena to the other takes fewer than 30 minutes on most days, but this is only the fourth playoff series between the two relatively successful teams.

How they match up: Kitchener wasn’t pushed much whilst winning the Midwest by six points. Guelph, a group with exactly one 19-year-old in its lineup, has no shared playoff experience thanks to a protracted rebuild. The Rangers look more impressive on paper as the Logan Brown-Smith-Kole Sherwood and Joseph Garreffa-Connor Bunnaman-Adam Mascherin lines make for a diverse attack, plus Logan Stanley (WPG) literally looms large on the blue line. The Storm, who face the possible loss of top-four defenceman Owen Lalonde (upper body), did beat Kitchener twice last week. But the Rangers might have been more focused on the second-round playoff preview against Sarnia that was sandwiched in between. It adds up to the Rangers are a huge on-paper favourite, but then again, so were the Virginia Cavaliers.

(3) Sarnia Sting vs. (6) Windsor Spitfires

Regular-season series: Sarnia 5-1

Draft-eligible players

Sarnia: LW Hugo Leufvenius

Windsor: D Connor Corcoran, C Curtis Douglas, LW Matthew MacDougall

Player to watch

Sarnia: RW Jordan Kyrou (STL) had 109 points in just 56 games.

Windsor: G Michael DiPietro (VAN) can probably steal one win, but four is a huge ask.

#TheMoreYouKnow: One team will be guaranteed of having the OHL’s longest playoff series win drought. The Sting last advanced to Round 2 in 2008, but the Spitfires have not done so since 2011.

How they match up: That lone defeat Sarnia had against Windsor was in the first game after Christmas, while Kyrou was at the world junior. The Sting have hurt teams in a lot of ways, especially when Kyrou, Jonathan Ang (FLA) and Drake Rymsha (LAK) are gracing different lines. Windsor’s season has been in service of rebuilding; the cupboard is so bare that Luchuk ended up with a team-most 51 points even though he was traded before Christmas.

(4) Owen Sound Attack vs. (5) London Knights

Regular-season series: London 4-1-1

Draft-eligible players

Owen Sound: C Aidan Dudas, D Sean Durzi, D Brady Lyle

London: D Evan Bouchard, likely first-rounder who led OHL defenders with 87 points; C Nathan Dunkley, C Liam Foudy, G Jordan Kooy C Billy Moskal, D Alec Regula

Player to watch

Owen Sound: C Nick Suzuki (VGK) had 100 points as an 18-year-old and not many people do that in the OHL.

London: Bouchard, a surefire NHL first-round pick, tied the Knights’s single-season defenceman scoring record with 87 points – 30 more than any of his teammates.

#TheMoreYouKnow: London has not gone out in the first round since 2011, which was also the last time it started the playoffs on the road – in Owen Sound, of all places.

How they match up: We saved the best for last, since this could be a classic undercard bout. Owen Sound is the more veteran team and it finished on a seven-game point streak, with eight players scoring at least 20 goals while Durzi has returned healthy to finish with 49 points in only 40 games from the back end. In contrast, the Knights have one point-per-game forward, Alex Formenton (OTT).

In terms of the football-style position-by-position comparisons, Suzuki is the most gifted playmaker up front. London rates the edge in goal with Jordan Kooy and on the first defence pairing with Bouchard. It could get also get a checkmark next to “intangibles” since it is a Dale Hunter team whose 21 road wins tied for second in the league, after all. However, this Big Market versus Small Market matchup will have emotions running high and could warp into a special-teams series. The regular-season form seems to favour Owen Sound, which has the stronger power play and is devastating when it’s a man up in the homey confines of the Bayshore arena.

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