March 20, 2014
One division of the OHL has three Memorial Cup-quality teams, two of which — at most — will play in late May.
The London Knights of Bo Horvat and Max Domi, as the two-time champion which always seems to make it own luck when the going gets serious, are the immovable object. Then there are two irresistible forces. The Guelph Storm, who had six homegrown talents score at least 60 points, built from within and spent big at the decisive moment by trading for the best available 19-year-old forward, Kerby Rychel. The Erie Otters, meantime, have validated two years of residing in the conference cellar by coming of age with an exciting team that, if it isn't defined by the budding superstar Connor McDavid, can't be imagined without him.
With a record 25-point gap between the 4 and 5 seeds, London and Windsor, the first round might not offer much upset potential. It will generate grist for the discussion of who is the true favorite to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
Season series: Knights 5-1-0-0. Odds favour: Knights 89%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Knights in 5. Prediction: Knights in 4.
Series in a sentence: Hobbled Spitfires vs. loaded London
This series might have been decided two weeks ago when Windsor's No. 1 defenceman Slater Koekkoek went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. The Spitfires are capable of shifting into underdog mode (defenceman Eric Diodati, on London: "They have everything to lose"), but at the same time it was outscored 24-5 in the five games since Koekkoek joined 18-year-old defenceman Trevor Murphy on the injured list. That might just be too much to overcome against London. It swept through the first two rounds in each of the past two seasons and has eight 20-goal scorers. Also, NHL first-rounders Michael McCarron (Montreal Canadiens) and Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo Sabres) have have second halves that pro-rate to 20-goal years.
Windsor, led by splendid sophomore Josh Ho-Sang and fellow Canadiens pick Brady Vail, would need to steal one of the first two in London to have a puncher's chance.
(3) Erie Otters (52-14-2, 106 pts) vs. (6) Saginaw Spirit (33-30-5, 71 pts)
Season series: Otters 3-1-0-0 (one shootout win). Odds favour: Otters 95%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Otters in 4. Prediction: Otters in 5.
Series in a sentence: Free-wheeling Otters vs. regrouping Spirit
Erie, from the big three of Connor Brown, Dane Fox and Connor McDavid, on through to André Burakovsky and the cagey vets Michael Curtis and Brendan Gaunce, can fill the net like almost no one's business. The Otters also carry the OHL's most efficient power play into a series with the Spirit, who faced a league-high-tying 333 penalty kills.
That combo does not augur well for Saginaw, but it has a cadre of veteran scorers such as Buffalo Sabres prospects Eric Locke and Justin Kea and overage Kristoff Kontos whocan produce in a grinding type of game. The Spirit also has a big defence with four regulars who each top 200 pounds, plus Jesse Graham can initiate quick counter-attacks. Then there's the prospect that Detroit Red Wings-signed goaltending prospect Jake Paterson, whose 3.15 average and .897 save percentage belies his potential, will have a signature performance.
Nevertheless, the Otters have tightened up their play in front of Columbus Blue Jackets goalie prospect Oscar Dansk and lead the OHL in fewest goals against while playing an up-tempo game. The elephant in the room — no non-awkward way to bring it up — involves wondering how deep Saginaw can dig emotionally while the players continue to mourn Terry Trafford. The notion of playing for Trafford's memory is an irresistible hook, though.
(2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (44-17-7, 95 pts) vs. (7) Owen Sound Attack (31-29-8, 70 pts)
Season series: 'Hounds 2-0-0-0. Odds favour: 'Hounds 77%. Most mathematically likely outcome: 'Hounds in 5. Prediction: 'Hounds in 6.
Series in a sentence: Soo tries to stay out of Attack mode
It's a classic RINO (rematch in name only) series since each team has evolved in the last 12 months. The Greyhounds are a sleek bunch with the likes of 91-point scorer Sergey Tolchinsky and potential NHL first-rounder Jared McCann, whose first playoffs were cut very short last spring. Contrary to the stereotype of the rough-and-tumble northern team, the Soo integrated the no-nonsense approach of coach Sheldon Keefe and was able to save its energy for things other than constantly penalty killing. Meantime, top defenceman Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers first-rounder, is continuing to mature right on schedule. The 'Hounds, ultimately, are younger than they were when they lost in six games to Owen Sound last spring, but are more skilled.
The Attack, conversely, still likes to grind and frustrate teams. With an inspirational leader in gritty Minnesota Wild signing Kurtis Gabriel, and contributors such as captain Zach Nastasiuk, Holden Cook (named as one of the OHL's most underrated players) and Kyle Hope, they are capable of prolonging the series. Goalie Brandon Hope also had a big year, and should the Soo's Matt Murray have an uncharacteristic off night, the Attack could win both games 3 and 4 in their own barn. Taking one at the Essar Centre doesn't seem promising, though. The 'Hounds are 29-5 at home.
(1) Guelph Storm (52-12-4, 108 pts) vs. (8) Plymouth Whalers (28-33-7, 63 pts)
Season series: Storm 3-0-0-1. Odds favour: Storm 97%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Storm in 4. Prediction: Storm in 4.
Series in a sentence: Storm's skill tops Whalers' heart (and Hartman)
Coach Scott Walker's Storm can quell any doubts that it is for real by quickly closing out the Whalers, who did well to make the playoffs with a roster full of rookies.
Guelph's top scorer, Winnipeg Jets pick Scott Kosmachuk, had nearly as goals (49) as Plymouth's top scorer Zack Lorentz had points (54). The Storm is also more seasoned, but there are several X factors that could help the Whalers fit into the spoiler role. Sophomore goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, whose 15 playoff starts last spring are 15 more than Guelph goalie Justin Nichols has made, can handle a heavy shot volume and steal games. Plymouth also hung on to Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Ryan Hartman, who's had a rivalry with Guelph's hired gun, Columbus first-rounder Kerby Rychel, since the latter was playing for the Whalers' rival, Windsor.
The Storm will have to keep its wits about it to push quickly through a series that boasts several NHL draft hopefuls, including the Storm's No. 2 centre Robby Fabbri and Plymouth's Nedeljkovic, scoring ace Matt Mistele and defencemen Connor Chatham, Alex Peters and Josh Wesley. Plymouth did the right thing by continuing to regenerate its roster and prioritize development; it might pay off in some future spring.
Neither Nedeljkovic nor Nichols played in Plymouth's only win over Guelph.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.