By: Bryan Thiel
On Thursday night the OHL playoffs will kick off and the countdown to the 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup can truly begin. The West has a pair of powerhouses that battled it out to the very end for conference supremacy, while Kingston ran away with the East as Kevin Labanc had a season to remember for the Barrie Colts.
Now it’s all on the line, as teams battle it out to hoist the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
1. Kingston Frontenacs vs 8. Oshawa Generals
These two got together around the trade deadline for one of the bigger deals, sending Michael Dal Colle to the Frontenacs. Now Dal Colle, who has 55 points in 30 games with the Fronts, has a chance at back-to-back OHL and Memorial Cup Championships. The first step on that journey could come at the expense of his former team, who fought to hold on to the final playoff spot in the East. Kingston played well down the stretch (7-2-1-0) and surrendered the fewest goals-against in the conference. Oshawa’s goaltending will need to be great if they want to stick around in this series because Kingston will try to grind them down.
Kingston wins series 4-1
2. Barrie Colts vs 7. Mississauga Steelheads
While the draft-eligible triplets in Mississauga form a formidable trio, the question will be whether Alex Nylander, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian can go toe-to-toe with Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane. Bastian was a goal away from giving all three Steelheads a 20/40 year, and the three of them have done fairly well against the Colts (Nylander: 5GP / 3G / 3A ; McLeod: 5GP / 3G / 3A; Bastian 6GP / 2G / 5A), but it will come down to depth. After the 100 point seasons of Labanc and Mangiapane, the Colts had four players with 60 or more points, including defensive scoring leader Rasmus Andersson. Add in the fact that there’s Mackenzie Blackwood between the pipes, and there’s no question that regular season success needs to continue for the triplets if the Steelheads want to stick around.
Barrie wins series 4-2
3. North Bay Battalion vs 6. Peterborough Petes
There are things to really like with both of these teams. Michael Amadio’s 50-goal/98-point season was the best since names like Cody Hodgson and Wojtek Wolski graced the ice in Brampton. You also can’t say enough about the year that Cam Dineen had (13G / 46A, second in scoring by defensemen) for North Bay. Jake Smith has always been a good fit with the Battalion as well, and always seems to play his best come playoff time (0.916 SV% in the post-season vs. 0.899 SV% in the regular season). On the other side, Hunter Garlent had a 40/40 campaign and Eric Cornel had his best year in the OHL setting career-highs across the board. Stan Butler’s style always plays well come playoff time, but the Petes could be ready to play spoiler.
Peterborough wins series 4-2
4. Niagara IceDogs vs 5. Ottawa 67’s
The IceDogs have a wealth of talent that’s good enough to get them to at least the conference finals, but they’ll have to get past red-hot Ottawa first. The 67’s wrapped up their season with six straight wins, which included victories over Barrie and Kingston, and Dante Salituro has been electric since January 10th. All this after the team traded away Travis Konecny and Sam Studnicka to Sarnia. For Niagara, their big moves came sprinkled across the last few years. Josh Ho-Sang led the team in scoring during the regular season, but a huge post-season could mean a lot for the mercurial forward. Mix in the acquisition of Josh Wesley and Alex Nedeljkovic from Flint and the IceDogs have added a key piece at every level to augment the talent they already had (and that’s ignoring the acquisition of Stephen Harper). The talent puts them in a position to push for a championship, but the big guns can’t afford to let up for a second if they want to do it.
Niagara wins series 4-2
1. Erie Otters vs 8. Saginaw Spirit
It took right up until the final buzzer of the regular season, but the Erie Otters held off the London Knights to claim the number one seed in the Western Conference. The Otters had a bit of an uneven run to end the regular season, dropping games to Niagara and Flint while ending up with some closer-than-expected results against Guelph and Saginaw, so the hope is they shake off the cobwebs quickly. Overall this is still one of the best teams in the CHL, and a team with Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome upfront, Travis Dermott on the blueline, and Devin Williams in net so they should be able flip the switch now that it’s playoff time…but I wouldn’t be surprised if Saginaw finds a way to steal a game off of them along the way.
Erie wins series 4-1
2. Sarnia Sting vs 7. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
The Sarnia Sting loaded up at the trade deadline, and in a year where it looked like the West will be won by Erie or London, it raised some eyebrows. Sarnia has played its best hockey down the stretch, winning six in a row before dropping the season-finale to Windsor (their last loss before that was against the Greyhounds). The Sting are playing with a lot of confidence and know that bigger challenges lie ahead, but the Greyhounds can’t be overlooked. The first three matchups were lopsided Sting wins, but the last matchup was a 5-2 Soo win, and the other two were one-goal victories for the Sting. This will be an interesting series but ultimately, the Sting should be off to the second round for the first time since 2007/08.
Sarnia wins series 4-2
3. London Knights vs 6. Owen Sound Attack
London is 1B in the Western Conference and get a Midwest Division slugfest for their troubles. There may be a 30-point difference between these two in the standings (and 100+ goals), but the Attack will put up a fight. There has been a lot written about Christian Dvorak, Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk this year, and for good reason: 121 goals, 223 assists and 344 points makes them a scary trio. London has depth too, as their next three leading scorers all finished with more points than Owen Sound’s leading scorer (Bryson Cianfrone finished with 50 points). The Attack will have their work cut out for them but they’ll give London all they can handle. Plus, this division always gives us great playoff series anyways.
London wins series 4-1
4. Kitchener Rangers vs 5. Windsor Spitfires
While the other three series may lack drama, this one makes up for it. While the Rangers can trot out Ryan MacInnis, Jeremy Bracco, and over-looked draft prospect Adam Mascherin, the Spitfires have Christian Fischer, Brendan Lemieux, and highly-touted draft eligible Logan Brown. As Luke Opilka gets set to embark on his first OHL playoffs, rookie Michael DiPietro has taken the OHL by storm in his first year and has his eyes set on being the next Alex Nedeljkovic – not only is he the rare rookie goalie that can start in the OHL, but he’s the rare rookie goalie who isn’t scared of the Aud or the Rangers (He won two of the three games he played against them, both in overtime). While they weren’t quite neck-and-neck in the standings (eight points separated them), they’re neck-and-neck on special teams and pretty much every other category. This one will be tight and will go the distance. It’ll be a must-watch.
Kitchener wins series 4-3
Bryan Thiel is a freelance broadcaster who has covered the OHL from rink-side and the broadcast booth. He has also helped produce OHL features for the past four seasons. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanThiel_88.