Western Conference Playoff Preview: Spitfires and Knights highlight first round

By: Bryan Thiel


Entering the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, the Western Conference looks nearly unstoppable. The top five teams all have a realistic chance at going to the OHL Finals, and one of the top four could end up at the Mastercard Memorial Cup alongside the Windsor Spitfires.

This should be fun.

1) Erie Otters vs 8) Sarnia Sting

debrincat

DeBrincat and the Otters are prepared for a deep run.

Up front: Alex DeBrincat. Dylan Strome. Taylor Raddysh. Anthony Cirelli. That’s not even fair, because that’s only half of the truly dangerous firepower they offer. They were the second-highest scoring team in the CHL and one of just three teams across the nation to score more than 300 goals. Jordan Kyrou had an outstanding season for Sarnia and Drake Rymsha is just shy of a goal-per-game pace since coming over from Ottawa, but it’ll be hard for the Sting to keep up.

On the blueline: Kitchener Rangers Head Coach Jay McKee told me that Erie doesn’t get enough credit for how good they are defensively, and he’s right. Even if you ignore the fact that Darren Raddysh led all defencemen in scoring, they haven’t allowed more than 25 shots in any of their last six games (Which includes two against London, and one against both Peterborough and Windsor). Sarnia struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, finishing with 277 goals against (second-worst in the West).

Between the pipes: This is where we find out if Troy Timpano’s career season is for real. Timpano won more games this year (36) than in his three previous years combined (25) and will be making his first playoff start after 137 regular season games.

And so…Just too much firepower for Sarnia to contend with. Erie’s on a mission this year and they’ll be tough to stop. Otters win 4-0

2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs 7) Flint Firebirds

Up front: The Greyhounds also boast a mindbogglingly deep offence, with six 20 goal scorers. This doesn’t even include Blake Speers, who put up 15 goals and 34 points after his sojourn in the NHL and a broken wrist. The Firebirds can trot out their own high-powered duo in Ryan Moore and Kole Sherwood, and can mix in 35-goal man Nicholas Caamano, but they’ll need someone else to step up.

On the blueline: The Firebirds have two good puck-movers, as Mathieu Henderson and Jalen Smereck combined for 99 points, but the team as a whole struggled when it came to goals allowed. Conor Timmins finished with 61 points and an equally impressive +53 (whether you like the stat or not, it’s impressive), while Gustav Bouramman is under-rated and Noah Carroll has been solid since being acquired from Guelph along with Colton White.

Between the pipes: When you can trot out a rookie with a 2.41 goals-against and a .918 save percentage in Matthew Villalta, and then have the insurance of Joseph Raaymakers behind him it’s a good problem to have (much like the Windsor Spitfires last year). Meanwhile the Firebirds will be choosing between Connor Hicks, who will be starting his first playoff game after 96 in his regular season career, and rookie Garrett Forrest. Whoever starts will need to stand on their head to give the Firebirds a chance.

And so…It’s nice to see that the restructure in Flint led to success this year after such a turbulent time last year. The Greyhounds are tough, and (like the Sting) Flint will have their work cut out for them. The season series says it’ll be close, but I never saw enough consistency from Flint overall to buy into that. Greyhounds win 4-1

3) Owen Sound Attack vs 6) Kitchener Rangers

Up front: Jonah Gadjovich, Nick Suzuki and Petrus Palmu all finished with 40+ goal seasons, while Kevin Hancock added 30 goals and 85 points. For Kitchener, Adam Mascherin leads the Rangers attack with 100 points, but they struggled down the stretch with consistency. Connor Bunnaman will play a big role in anything the Rangers are able to generate, while the speedy Joseph Garreffa could get some much-needed exposure with a big series.

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Michael McNiven finished in a three-way tie for the league lead in shutouts with six.

On the blueline: Santino Centorame is the veteran leading the way, but Markus Phillips will be a star in this league after his draft eligible season. This blueline also plays a huge role in the Attack’s dominant special teams this year (1st in power play, 3rd in penalty kill). The Rangers have two OAs on the back end in captain Frank Hora and Dylan DiPerna, but season-ending injuries to Doug Blaisdell and Connor Hall, as well as Andrew Burns being lost for up to a month taps their depth.

Between the pipes: Depending on who you ask, Michael McNiven is the best goalie in the OHL. Whether you think he’s the best or second best, solving him is the challenge as he shut the Rangers out twice during the regular season. Luke Opilka has struggled to find his stride after a bothersome playoffs last year and off-season surgery, but he could make that a distant memory with a strong performance.

And so…The Rangers are very similar to the Attack of last year who gave the Knights so much trouble in the first round. With a mix of veterans and youth, they have the ability to steal one or two games, but a first round upset will be hard against such a well-balanced team. Attack win 4-2

4) London Knights vs 5) Windsor Spitfires

Up front: The Knights loaded up (as per usual), but find themselves in a match-up they wanted to avoid. Cliff Pu and JJ Piccinich were joined by Mitchell Stephens and Dante Salituro to create a dangerous forward group, and while Sam Miletic will get to play a role on this playoff run, he’ll be sitting Games 1 and 2. On the other side, there’s super soph Gabe Vilardi, Logan Brown, and deadline acquisition Jeremy Bracco. This is a high-powered series that will be fun to watch.

On the blueline: Mikhail Sergachev leads the Spits blueline, while Sean Day has been afforded the opportunity to play his game without distraction in Windsor and seems to have finally settled in. Imagine if they had the injured Logan Stanley back. There’s a lot of experience on the other side, as the Knights acquired Memorial Cup champion Mitch Vande Sompel, and feature three dangerous two-way defencemen in Evan Bouchard, Victor Mete and Olli Juolevi. Vande Sompel really likes the way this team is constructed front to back, and thinks they’d give his championship Generals team a run for their money.

Between the pipes: Tyler Parsons or Michael DiPietro? It’s not an enviable choice. I lean Parsons here just based on experience, but DiPietro could shut the Knights down.

And so…If the Knights win this series, it may not be the last time they see Windsor this year, as they have a realistic shot at repeating as OHL champs. Then again, if Windsor can get past London, they’ll be tough to stop too. While both teams are talented, the Spits sneak out of round one in the best series in either conference. Spitfires win 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.

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