It's a classic beat-the-best-to-be-the-best scenario with the OHL final, with defending MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires meeting the Barrie Colts, the CHL's No. 1-ranked team.
It is not the only final in the country between No. 1 seeds (Calgary and Tri-City both advanced to the WHL final, which we'll talk about more this week), but's as compelling a matchup as you could imagine.
Here are five questions to ponder ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday in Barrie:
1. How fast will Windsor get past the fatigue factor?
Being extended to seven games against Kitchener left coach Bob Boughner's Spitfires with only a one-day break. The Colts have had five days off since ousting Mississauga-St. Michael's in a five game Eastern Conference final.
Honestly, in terms of days off between series, the past examples (teams which were not hurt by short rest, teams which lost after sitting around for a week) tend to cancel out one another. Boughner noted having eight days off prior to the Kitchener series "backfired" on the Spitfires.
A truth here is it usually takes any team a couple days to get a good hate on for a playoff opponent. Barrie is probably a little ahead with turning the page on the last round, and with the first two games at home, where it's only lost four games all season, that should play into its favour.
2. Will the Colts' back end handle Windsor's depth?
The Colts' output has overshadowed the fact it had the third-best defensive record in the OHL, allowing only 186 goals. It defence corps, headed by Alex Pietrangelo, Nick Crawford, T.J. Brodie, and Dalton Prout, plays very well behind its own blueline. However, none of their three playoff foes scored more than 218 goals in the regular season, more than 100 less than Windsor.
The Spitfires have a bevy a semi-household names, between the combination of Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique (15 playoff goals) up front, plus Justin Shugg, Greg Nemisz, Eric Wellwood and puck-moving defencemen Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler. (Ellis was a first-round choice in the NHL draft last summer and Fowler will be in about two months.)
The question is how much Barrie's defensive record is built on being in the Eastern Conference, which is demonstrably weaker than the West. Windsor went 16-3-0-1 in interconference play, by the way.
3. Getting under the skin to win: Kassian and Rinaldo
"It's playoff hockey," Colts captain Stefan Della Rovere, who's been known to play on the edge, says. "Nothing dumb can happen here. We're trying to win a championship, they're trying to win a championship."
Williamson noted, "It's over and done with. It's a new season. Zack paid a heavy price, whether the amount of games was too heavy or too light, it is what it is. Matt is back playing very well for us. It's a dead issue, no one's talking about it."
That being said, Kassian can rattle a few cages, and wear on an opponent as the series progresses, as the Colts know well from when he played in the East with Peterborough.
The Colts have their same-named sandpaper guy, Zac Rinaldo, who is eligible to return for Game 3 after sitting out a 12-game suspension for a blindside hit on Sudbury's Marcus Foligno in the first round.
4. Which goalie(s) will we see, especially for Barrie?
Barrie's Mavric Parks, who has a playoff-best 1.75 goals-against average, will start Game 1. Williamson notes Peter Di Salvo is "100 per cent" recovered from a knee injury and will be able to play "if we need him."
Should Windsor get out to a lead, Williamson is bound to get first- and second-guessed over his goaltending decisions. Boughner had the same scenario in the last round after Philipp Grubauer falted (seven goals on 35 shots) in a Game 1 loss to Kitchener. Troy Passingham was in for two losses before Grubauer was reinstated.
5. Will Taylor take over?
File it under "thanks, Captain Obvious," but a big question going in is whether Taylor Hall can turn up it a notch as he burnishes his credentials to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft.
Hall helped his linemate, Henrique, go off for six goals during the final four games of Windsor's come-from-behind series win over Kitchener. It stands as an X-factor in what should be a riveting series.
- Barrie Colts