OHL Preview: Greyhounds leak oil but remain stacked

Boris Katchouk scored a hat trick in Game 7 versus Owen Sound. (Terrry Wilson / OHL Images)

The ’Hound Machine leaked a little oil, which to horribly mangle and mix metaphors, is a drop of blood in the water for everyone else connected with the OHL.

A few years ago, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned “relax” into a five-syllable word and an indelible meme. The No. 1-ranked Greyhounds might want to channel that, for their frazzled fans’ sake, after giving up a converted touchdown during both Game 6 and 7 against the Owen Sound Attack this week. Take nothing away from Owen Sound, but it wasn’t exactly an assured performance from the CHL’s top-ranked team. It’s also plausible that the Greyhounds have received the wake-up call they needed to burn off any mental fat that accumulated while they ran away with first overall in the OHL.

“There was a lot more intensity in our game,” Greyhounds centre Morgan Frost (PHI) told the Sault Star after Sault Ste. Marie beat Owen Sound 9-7 in Game 7 on Tuesday night. “Whenever you’re facing elimination, you want to play your best.”

With that loose end wrapped up, the OHL’s final four is set: Hamilton-Kingston in the Eastern Conference, with a Kitchener-Sault Ste. Marie showdown in the Western Conference. The former matchup might seem ahistorical, but in reality, the most recent OHL final appearance for any of these four franchises was 10 seasons ago, in 2008.

As for the Greyhounds’ close shave, it was just last year that the OHL’s top overall seed was pushed to the full seven games in the second round. Everything worked out in the end for those Erie Otters, at least until the MasterCard Memorial Cup final.

Two other OHL championship teams in the last 25 years – the 2000 Barrie Colts and 1993 Peterborough Petes – also went the distance in Round 2.

With the third round beginning on Wednesday, here is a look at the matchups:

Eastern Conference: (1) Hamilton Bulldogs vs. (3) Kingston Frontenacs

Regular-season series: Hamilton 4-1-1, with three wins in extra time.

Series in a sentence: To play off the cities’ monikers, steel is strong while limestone is resilient: Hamilton grades out as the deeper team, but Kingston has some team-of-destiny stuff happening and goalie Jeremy Helvig (CAR) is dialed in.

Last playoff matchup: 2017, first round; Kingston won 4-3 after a Game 7 overtime goal by Linus Nyman.

Last OHL final berth: Hamilton, 2008 (as the Belleville Bulls); Kingston, none.

Draft-eligible players
Hamilton: G Nick Donofrio, RW Isaac Nurse, C Brandon Saigeon
Kingston: RW Linus Nyman

Add seasoning (overagers and 19-year-olds): Hamilton 13, Kingston 10

Player(s) to watch

Hamilton: The Bulldogs’ first pairing, captain Justin Lemcke and Riley Stillman (FLA), likely have the tall task of matching up against a Frontenacs attack with four NHL-drafted forwards.

Kingston: That would still be centre Gabriel Vilardi (LAK), who has 11 goals in as many playoff games. “Kingston’s top-end guys are elite,” Hamilton coach John Gruden said during a conference call on Tuesday. “If we are not taking care of our own end, it is going to be a problem for us.”

#TheMoreYouKnow: Five of the last seven Kingston-Hamilton games have required overtime, while Helvig was included in the three stars during all four of his starts this season against the Bulldogs.

The case for the Bulldogs: That extra home game was a hole card for Kingston in 2017, but now Hamilton has it. The Bulldogs, by steadily chiseling away at the Niagara IceDogs during a five-game second-round series, completed an exercise in getting to an older goalie (Stephen Dhillon) who had been playing very well. Hamilton has its own quiver of older scorers with the likes of Robert Thomas (STL), Nicholas Caamano (DAL) and Ryan Moore and undrafted Brandon Saigeon, while the second-last line of defence has supported Kaden Fulcher (DET), who has a playoffs-best 2.51 goals-against average.

The Bulldogs’ relative age also helps with toggling between the heavy game and a north-south sprint. If they’re up to matching Kingston’s tempo – Gruden said Tuesday that one of their matchups in mid-January “was the fastest game we played all year” – they could advance. Hamilton will have to fix a habit of throttling down at times and letting up after goals. Also, while the Bulldogs have a lethal 35.9 per cent power play during the playoffs, its penalty kill (75.6 per cent) is the worst of the four extant teams.

The case for the Frontenacs: Everything resets to zero in a new series, but Kingston’s Ted Nichol-Tyler Burnie-Ryan Cranford checking line did not allow the Eastern Conference’s most prolific trio much more than that during Round 2. Likely 2018 NHL draft lottery pick Andrei Svechnikov and 50-goal scorers Aaron Luchuk (OTT) and Dmitry Sokolov (MIN) were relatively contained as Kingston ran off four wins in a row. That is one X-factor for the slight underdog Frontenacs, along with having mobile defenceman Sean Day (NYR) to complement their attacking forwards. Left wing Max Jones (ANA), now four games into his return from finger surgery, will surely be at peak goading level.

One concern for Kingston will be whether the absence of Liam Murray (head-checking suspension, eligible to return for a Game 5) compromises its depth on the back end. Helvig is good, but no goalie does it alone.

Western Conference: (1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. (2) Kitchener Rangers

Regular-season series: Sault Ste. Marie 4-0.

Series in a sentence: The high-scoring Greyhounds survived a scare, but Kitchener, which has had two six-game series, probably won’t frighten easily.

Last playoff matchup: 2008, conference final; Kitchener won 4-1, with a 17-year-old Nazem Kadri chalking up three assists in the Game 5 clincher.

Last OHL final berth: Kitchener, 2008; Sault Ste. Marie, 1993.

Draft-eligible players

Sault Ste. Marie: C Barrett Hayton, D Rasmus Sandin, D Mac Hollowell
Kitchener: D Giovanni Vallati, C Riley Damiani, C Rickard Hugg, C Adam Liska

Add seasoning (overagers and 19-year-olds): Sault Ste. Marie 11, Kitchener 11

Player(s) to watch

Sault Ste. Marie: Boris Katchouk (TB) showed up when it mattered by scoring a Game 7 hat trick against Owen Sound on Tuesday.

Kitchener: Choose your Logan wisely – No. 1 centre Logan Brown (OTT) who is first in playoff scoring or No. 1 defenceman Logan Stanley (WPG), who will have some heavy workloads against the OHL’s No. 1 offence.

#TheMoreYouKnow: Katchouk is an alumnus of minor hockey and lacrosse organizations in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, while Rangers goalie Mario Culina hails from the Soo.

Making a case for the Greyhounds: Being in the 300/sub-200 club (goals scored/against during the regular season) is the mark of a powerhouse. The Greyhounds were the sixth OHL team in the last five seasons to accomplish that feat. Three of the other five went on to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup, but the other two, including the 2015 ’Hounds, were stopped at this stage. Point being, while the ’Hound Machine leaked oil in the last round, they remain stacked. After all, no fewer than 10 players are drafted and/or signed by NHL teams, while right wing Taylor Raddysh (TB) and defenceman Jordan Sambrook (DET) have each played in two OHL championship series with the Otters. So they have tested talent.

Whether the Greyhounds back end, anchored by world junior gold medallist Conor Timmins (COL), was exposed against Owen Sound or simply faced a very good Attack forward corps (more likely the latter), is the main question. Kitchener scored more than 40 fewer regular-season goals than Owen Sound, so perhaps the Greyhounds will have a more favourable matchup this time.

Making a case for the Rangers: The Greyhounds are the clear favourites on paper. One can also wonder how stiff a test Kitchener has received, between the youngish Guelph Storm in the first round and the Sarnia Sting, whose power play flatlined in the second round. Kitchener isn’t built for 7-6 games, but coach Jay McKee’s structured system is accentuated by veteran forwards Brown, Adam Mascherin (FLA), Givani Smith (DET) and Kole Sherwood (CLB) who supply some natural offence.

Kitchener does offer a seafaring fourth line, so it shouldn’t end up sucking wind against the aptly named Greyhounds. Brown’s puck protection and work along the walls might aid the Rangers with keeping play at a medium pace. The last big variable will be the overage Culina in goal.

Interestingly enough, McKee was on the staff of the 2015 Otters team, of Connor McDavid, that looked unstoppable until being thwarted by the tight, well-coached Oshawa Generals in the OHL final. This is a similar sort of matchup and the Rangers, one of the OHL’s legacy franchises, would surely relish eliminating a potentially generational Greyhounds squad.

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