And then there were four.
After a first round that had very little in terms of surprises, there was a touch more drama in round number two.
In Game 1, it seemed like the Mississauga Steelheads were bound to have trouble with another high-class goalie as Jeremy Brodeur made 50 saves for the Oshawa Generals, backstopping them to a 3-2 win. After that though, it was all Mississauga. They won Game 2 by a 7-3 score and then went on the road for Games 3, 4 and 5, promptly ending Oshawa’s season.
The fact they closed out the Generals in Oshawa and moved to 6-0 on the road in the playoffs isn’t lost on Head Coach James Richmond’s team.
“We’ve been a pretty good road team since December 4th; it really just comes down to being ready to play wherever you’re playing,” he explained on the Eastern Conference Final conference call. “It doesn’t seem to matter to these kids where they play. We’re going to try to keep it going against Peterborough.”
While the Steelheads had their way with Oshawa after Game 1, the biggest challenge in the conference stands in their way in the first place Peterborough Petes, led by Dylan Wells. Wells and the Petes are a perfect 8-0 through two rounds, and he has been spotless between the pipes with a 1.94 GAA and a 0.944 save percentage.
I don’t see any surprises coming out of any one player. It’s going to be two teams playing their hardest to try and win a series. – James Richmond
Through no fault of his own however, those numbers are so good because of the competition Peterborough played. A young Niagara team and a defence-first Kingston squad didn’t offer much offensive fight against the first place team in the East.
Head Coach Jody Hull won’t let you judge things simply on the numbers though.
“The first two rounds don’t reflect our opponent, even though we did sweep. I thought both were hard-fought series. It’s been a bit of a process here in Peterborough but we’re excited to play Mississauga in the East Final.”
Now they’ll get to put those numbers to the test against the second-highest scoring team in the playoffs. Since acquiring him, Spencer Watson has fueled the Steelheads’ attack, thriving alongside captain Michael McLeod. The two are so good together, they combined for ten points in a late-season 10-1 win over the Petes.
Considering Wells spent that day on the bench, the result, both sides agree, likely isn’t a precursor to much in the conference final.
“There’s no animosity there,” Hull stated. “They (Mississauga) weren’t trying to do anything to try and run up the score.”
“That game was talked about that night and that was pretty much it,” agreed Richmond.
“For Mississauga it has no impact. Those games as a winning coach or a losing coach, you throw it out. You don’t go back and look at it; we’ve got three games that we lost to look at.”
By now there’s plenty of tape on everyone, so it just comes down to experience and execution.
Odds and Ends
-Official word out of Peterborough is that Matt Timms is still ‘day-to-day’. He has been out since suffering an upper-body injury in Game 3 against Niagara.
-Mississauga declined to confirm who would be starting game one: Jacob Ingham or Matthew Mancina. That prompted a lighter note in the conference when Hull chimed in: “I’ll let James know who my starter’s going to be if he let’s me know who his is.”
Across the OHL says: Petes in 7
There was even more drama in the West, where the Erie Otters closed out their seven game series with the London Knights on Tuesday night with a 5-4 overtime win. The next day, they had to answer questions about the Owen Sound Attack as they prepared for a fourth-straight Western Conference Championship Series.
While many look at the talent the Otters have iced the past four seasons and see it as a disappointment that they’ve been to just one OHL Final, internally Erie looks at it a bit differently.
“There’s a little bit of extra pressure being here for the fourth time,” Otters’ captain Dylan Strome acknowledged. “I wouldn’t say we underachieved in those years though. I think the combined record of the teams we’ve played (when they’ve moved on) in the Memorial Cup is 11-1. Those were great teams we played and we think this is our year. Hopefully we can bring our playoff experience to form.”
In any other year, that Otters/Knights series would have been a dynamite Western Conference final. Instead, in a conference so deep that there’s been increased talk of changing the playoff format, the Otters find themselves moving on from the defending Memorial Cup champions who trotted out an all-world goalie, to another division rival with an equally talented tender.
“Parsons was pretty spectacular and we’re going to face the same challenge with McNiven,” Strome said. “He’s a heck of a goaltender and he has proven it all year. He loves a challenge and high stakes games, and hopefully Parsons and the Knights prepared us for this.”
Head Coach Kris Knoblauch echoed those sentiments: “As for finding a weakness in Owen Sound’s game, I don’t think there is any.”
That’s pretty weighty praise coming from the OHL’s highest-scoring offence in the regular season and playoffs, but it’s well deserved. After deflating the Kitchener Rangers in round one, McNiven kept his team in Games 1 and 2 against a dangerous Sault Ste. Marie team, and then turned it up a level as the Attack found their offence, capping things off with a 23-save shutout in Game 6.
“Your goaltender is important in the playoffs because he needs to make timely saves and Michael has done that this year,” as Attack bench boss Ryan McGill got another opportunity to shower his star netminder with praise. “It gives our group confidence to move ahead and play on the edge a little bit.”
If overcoming McNiven and a dangerous offence led by Nick Suzuki wasn’t enough, the Otters find themselves traveling to another tough road arena for the right to go the OHL Finals. Strome knows firsthand how loud the crowd at the Bayshore can get and the groove the Attack are in. McNiven has lost once in regulation in Owen Sound since December 28th (Game 2 against Kitchener).
Obviously last night was a pretty crazy game. Three or four lead changes throughout the night was pretty wild but we have to settle back in and get ready for Owen Sound. They were the best team in the league in the second half, they’re solid offensively and have a great goalie. – Dylan Strome
“Their record speaks for itself in the second half; it’s a really tough rink to play in. We understand that, we know that. We’re coming off such an emotional challenge that we have to settle back in. It’s going to be an emotional series with two emotional hockey towns. We’ve had some success there over the years so hopefully we can build off that.”
Despite finishing first and third in the West, the Otters and Attack were separated by one point during the regular season, locked in a race for a division crown that wasn’t decided until the final weekend. Even though these two have met just once since December 4th (a 4-2 Owen Sound win), McGill thinks the series will pick up right where the regular season left off.
“I look forward to this series because it’s going to be a hockey series. Fast-paced, won and lost in the face-off circle, there’s going to be no gimmicks. It’s just playing hard between the whistles.”
Odds and Ends
-McGill was very complimentary of both Nick Suzuki and Markus Phillips. McGill cited the fact Phillips stepped up when Jacob Friend got hurt in January as a big turning point in his development.
-Knoblauch expressed confidence in both Troy Timpano and Joseph Murdaca. When pressed to name a starter he didn’t tip his hand.
Across the OHL says: Otters in 7
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.