Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Knights-Storm, Otters-’Hounds each too close to call: OHL Western Conference second-round preview

Like the Kentucky Wildcats reaching the Final Four after starting the NCAA Tournament as an 8 seed, the underdog label doesn't really fit the London Knights.

It's irresistible Guelph vs. immovable London in a league championship-calibre second-round matchup that could shape how the Knights go into the Memorial Cup on their home ice in mid-May. The Storm franchise's best team in a decade, which should have 45-goal scorer Robby Fabbri back from a two-week absence, comes in having received a bigger push in the first round while also having a healthier lineup than a team which is drawn down defensively.

The Erie-Sault Ste. Marie matchup could be called the Snub-way Series, to play on Otters and Greyhounds captains Connor Brown and Darnell Nurse not getting the call from Team Canada in December for the world junior championship. (It's also a chance to make light of the exceptional travel distance, by OHL standards, between the cities.)

The 'Hounds and Otters got underway Wednesday, with the London-Guelph matchup commencing Friday. Don't ask why arguably the league's two best teams are starting a series on April 4 and a 95-point team has home-ice advantage against the 106-point club. That's considered OHL logic.

(3) Erie Otters vs. (2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Season series: 1-1-0-0. Odds favour: Otters 78%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Otters in 6. Prediction: Otters in 7.

Why the Otters should win: For much of the season, Erie Connors, with Messrs. Brown and McDavid as main cogs, almost became this near-mythical SRS machine. The Otters can bring it offensively with six players who scored 28 or more goal and counted at least 56 points, and it can play a puck-possession game that opponents are unable to resist trying to top when its takes over offensively.

The 'Hounds defence corps, once one gets past Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Nurse and the rugged 19-year-old Alex Gudbranson, AKA The Beard, consists wholly of 17- and 18-year-olds. There is bounteous potential on the Soo blue line, especially with Tyler Hore and Kyle Jenkins, but it wasn't tested nearly as much by the Owen Sound Attack as it will be by the Otters. If Erie's vets such as Vancouver Canucks prospects Dane Fox and Brendan Gaunce bog the Soo down in its own zone, it could lead to more premium chances.

Erie's goaltending, though, is a worrying thing. It didn't take Oscar Dansk with a No. 3 overall import draft choice two years ago in order to have him as insurance for Devin Williams.

Why the 'Hounds could win: The Soo has a lot more going for it than one might think. Thanks to OHL rules, it has the extra home game and it also has a potential money goalie in Matt Murray, who will be playing some of the series in the same state as his NHL organization, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Greyhounds surely took copious notes on how the Saginaw Spirit extended Erie to overtime three times in a five-game first-round series, and will use that to their advantage. Greyhounds coach Sheldon Keefe also has a team that can maintain discipline on defence and on the penalty kill.

Keefe also has a good blend of younger talent — Jared McCann, Blake Speers, Sergey Tolchinsky — and older hands — two-way centre Tyler Gaudet, who might be the series' pivotal player — that can skate with Erie. As the team that travels more than anyone in the OHL, the 'Hounds also might have more left in the tank by the end of a series that involves a 2,000-km round trip.

The 'Hounds, provided everyone buys into containing the Otters offensively, could pull this off. Do not forget that they drilled Erie 8-2 on Feb. 22, so there is that. Erie didn't have key defensive forward Jake Evans in the lineup that night.

What you should ignore: Keefe is not a finalist for OHL coach of the year honours, although some dim bulb thought he should win the award. Last year the same source thought the award should go to Barrie's Dale Hawerchuk. He wasn't a finalist, yet his Colts came within one dented crossbar of winning the OHL title.

(4) London Knights vs. (1) Guelph Storm

Season series: Storm 3-2-1-0. Odds favour: Storm 61%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Storm in 7. Prediction: Storm in 6.

Why the Storm should win: Things have changed since the Midwest monoliths had their last scheduled game on Jan. 10. Eighteen-year-old goalie Justin Nichols has continued maturing, getting his average down to 2.85 and his save percentage up to .918 by regular season's end despite a team-wide case of February blahs. If Nichols stays on his game, the Storm should be in fine fettle.

At the time of that January game, the Storm's big ads from Windsor, left wing Kerby Rychel and defenceman Nick Ebert were still acclimatizing to their new club. Guelph has integrated the two ex-Spitfires into its lineup, becoming deeper up front and along the blueline. With London down to only two mainstays on the blueline, Nikita Zadorov and Dakota Mermis, Guelph ought to be able to shake loose from Dale Hunter's shutdown tactics and find enough offence to win.

Guelph isn't operating at full capacity, either, with Carolina Hurricanes pick Brock McGinn sitting out an eight-game headshot suspension. It's also arguable that it takes a top, top-drawer scorer or two to take down London, instead of an offence-by-committee approach Rychel, with 100-point man Scott Kosmachuk, Dallas Stars first-rounder Jason Dickinson and Minnesota Wild signing Zack Mitchell.

Why the Knights could win: Is it OK to just type "remember it's London" and go out for ice cream now that the snow is almost melted and the sun is out?

Any team that has Bo Horvat and Chris Tierney, the OHL's poster boys for why the league should publish faceoff stats, has a chance to shut a team down by forcing it to start more plays from its own zone. The Knights have a unfailing offence of its own with the aforementioned duo and an array of attackers ranging from first-round NHL talents (Max Domi, Mitchell Marner) to the underrated later-round picks (Josh Anderson, Gemel Smith), to the guileful vets (twins Matt Rupert and Ryan Rupert). Anderson's, Horvat's and mammoth Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Michael McCarron's work along the walls, whether it's taking the body or sustaining a cycle, could also help frustrate Guelph and force turnovers that Nichols ends up fishing out of his net.

London, for all one knows, might have been lacking for motivation before it lost overage D-men Brady Austin and Zach Bell and 19-year-old goalie Anthony Stolarz for the series. One can already hear the claims that the Knights were written off that will be made if they prevail. If they don't, they have a month to regroup.

For what it is worth, the last two defending league champions who were also Memorial Cup hosts, the 2004 Kelowna Rockets and '07 Vancouver Giants, did not repeat but won the tournament.

What you should ignore: Some site picked Plymouth to take down London last spring and believed the Dougie Hamilton/Ryan Strome Niagara IceDogs would get 'er done a year prior. How did that work out?

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

Related Articles

Buzzing The Net

Add to My Yahoo RSS

Blog Roll

Featured Sports Video