The Western Conference has its Sault Ste. Marie-Erie showdown waiting to happen. Please keep in mind in playoffs, though, the preliminaries can often be just as compelling as the much-anticipated main bout.
Both series between the mid-pack teams — Kitchener-London, Owen Sound-Guelph — have shaped as pick 'ems. It would be hard to imagine both the Knights and Storm being done by early April after both were at the Memorial Cup a season ago, but such is the cycle in the Ontario Hockey League.
The Sarnia-Erie series begins Thursday, with the other three Western matchups starting one night later.
(4) Guelph Storm (38-25-5, 81 points) vs. (5) Owen Sound Attack (37-27-4, 78 pts)
Season series: Storm 5-2-1. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Storm 11th, Attack 18th. Post-trade deadline records: Storm 16-12-1, Attack 19-13-0. Prediction: Attack in 7.
Series in a sentence: Guelph has its hammers backs, but to the Attack, everything is the nail.
Why the Attack should win: Owen Sound cycles the puck and forechecks in a manner that can vex even the most cohesive defensive teams, which the Storm are anything but after losing overage Zac Leslie to shoulder surgery. Based on making too much of that theory, one can see Owen Sound prevailing and reaching Round 2 for the third time in five seasons. The Attack has strong 19-year-old scoring leadership with Detroit Red Wings prospect Zach Nastasiuk and playmaking Edmonton Oilers pick Kyle Platzer.
Likely OHL defenceman of the year Chris Bigras also helms a pretty stable unit. Owen Sound's goalie rotation of 19-year-old Jack Flinn and 17-year-old rookie Michael McNiven is a wild card, but at least coach Greg Ireland has two serviceable options.
Why the Storm could win: Coach Bill Stewart will finally have something resembling his optimal 18 skaters and two goalies for the playoffs, which could seldom be said of the Storm in the second half of the season. St. Louis Blues first-rounder Robby Fabbri, after missing two months with a high ankle sprain, should be refreshed and ready to take a leading role. Red Wings prospect Tyler Bertuzzi is another forward who kicked it up a notch during Guelph's run to the 2014 title. Bertuzzi might be due to a bounce-back after tailing off offensively in the final weeks of the regular season, finishing with 98 points.
The Storm have seasoned D-man C.J. Garcia back from an ankle injury, but there are some doubts about a back end that had little continuity after Christmas. It could be the Storm's Achilles heel, especially if the Attack win out in games 3, 4 and 6 up by Georgian Bay.
(3) London Knights (40-24-4, 84 pts) vs. (6) Kitchener Rangers (32-26-10, 74 pts)
Season series: Rangers 3-1-2. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Knights 13th, Rangers 22nd. Post-trade deadline records: Knights 16-12-1, Rangers 16-13-2. Prediction: Rangers in 7.
Series in a sentence: Motivated Rangers will try to mix and match against Mitch and Max of London.
Why the Rangers should win: Overage goalie Jake Paterson is just that good and has imbued the Blueshirts with a new-found confidence over the past two months, which culminated with an 8-1 road win over London in the teams' final meet-up on March 12. In what shapes up as close series between the historic rivals, the gut instinct is to go with who should, based on extraneous factors, be the more fired-up team.
The Rangers lack playoff experience, but play well defensively with overages Max Iafrate and Liam Maaskant and can be opportunistic offensively. Coach Troy Smith has finally found a decent first line, with Ryan MacInnis playing with 19-year-old Brandon Robinson and 18-year-old David Miller. At the end of the day, there's also Paterson, the "only goaltender in the OHL playoffs capable of stealing a series." The Wings prospect has shone in two previous playoffs against London, while his team also won 2-of-3 at Bud Gardens.
Why the Knights could win: London seemed to be going by rote in the final two months. However, coach Dale Hunter typically does have his teams prepared to sacrifice and sell out in the post-season, especially when they're being downgraded in the predictions. The Knights possess more overall skill up front with the century club of Mitchell Marner, Max Domi and Christian Dvorak, who all topped 100 points in the regular season. It's also the final playoff go-around for pesky skilled winger Matt Rupert, who is one of the few holdovers aside from Domi who's won an OHL title with London.
The abundant offence might override the Knights having a young defence and no playoff experience in goal between southpaw Michael Giugovaz and rookie Tyler Parsons. If the Knights pull this off, it will take them at least six games.
(2) Erie Otters (50-14-4, 104 pts) vs. (7) Sarnia Sting (29-32-7, 65 pts)
Season series: Otters 3-1-0-0. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Otters first, Sting 48th. Post-trade deadline records: Otters 22-5-1, Sting 10-17-3. Prediction: Otters in 4.
Series in a sentence: Erie should advance, because Connor McDavid.
Why the Otters should win: Two words: Connor McDavid, who's famous for being good at hockey. The biggest drama could be whether Erie gets through the series quickly and painlessly, or gets extended like it did in the first round in 2014 against Saginaw (three overtime games and a one-goal win in a five-game series). McDavid, now that he's 18, is simply more cut out physically to impose his will and skill on the higher-stakes games. Erie's league-best power play, with McDavid, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat and D-man Travis Dermott wheeling about the offensive zone, can also make for long nights for opponents.
How the Sting can stretch out the series: Overage goalie Taylor Dupuis, who had a 2.61/.920 slash line before the Sting sold off veteran talent, got ample rest down the stretch for the playoffs and can steal games. Sarnia also has a strong, if young group up front in leading scorer Nikita Korostolev, healthy-at-long-last Pavel Zacha and 16-year-old Jordan Kyrou that can be pesky in the offensive zone and perhaps put heat on a relatively young Otters defence.
That said, the Sting will hard-pressed to contain McDavid. Standout rookie defenceman Jakob Chychrun, who's had a recurring shoulder issue, is expected to play after missing the final five games.
(1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (54-12-2, 110 pts) vs. (8) Saginaw Spirit (29-36-3, 61 pts)
Season series: 'Hounds 5-2-0-1, including the last four meetings. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: 'Hounds second, Spirit 41st Post-trade deadline records: 'Hounds 25-3-0, Spirit 11-18-1. Prediction: 'Hounds in 4.
Series in a sentence: The Soo's combined tally in last four games, 29-7, looks like a football score, and they might put another touchdown or two on the board.
Why the 'Hounds should win: Let this roll around for a bit — the Soo had nine 20-goal scorers, along with Buffalo Sabres signing Jean Dupuy potting 18 in only 54 games. They debuted their post-deadline lock by scoring a dozen goals against Saginaw on Jan. 14 and proceeded to dispatch opponents ruthlessly for the duration on the way to a club-record 110 points (the 1985 Greyhounds posted 109 with two fewer games and no overtime).
Greyhounds coach Sheldon Keefe will surely dream up a way to keep his players engaged in what will likely prove to be a mismatch.
How the Spirit can stretch out the series: The typical eighth-place team's playoffs is the last few weeks of the regular season. Coach Greg Gilbert's Spirit won the berth while counting on two 17-year-old 'tenders, Evan Cormier and David Ovsjannikov. They also have emerging talent in the 16- to 18-year-old cohorts in 20-goal rookie Tye Felhaber, sophomore Mitchell Stephens and San Jose Sharks pick Dylan Sadowy. If they forecheck well enough to disrupt Sault Ste. Marie's timing and force some turnovers — easier said than done against Anthony DeAngelo and Darnell Nurse — perhaps they make the Soo sweat out a couple of wins.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.