For two years, the Eastern Conference's best team in the regular season has not been the one who emerged to play in May for the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
On paper, and on ice more often than not, the 108-point Oshawa Generals have looked daunting. Between fast-rising Niagara, along with high-scoring Barrie and defending conference champ North Bay, a challenger might emerge.
The first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs is often filled with walkovers, but there's potential for one or two Eastern teams to advance without the benefit of home-ice advantage. The Niagara-Ottawa and Belleville-Barrie affrays begin Thursday, with the other two series commencing Friday.
(4) Ottawa 67's (38-25-5, 81 points) vs. (5) Niagara IceDogs (37-27-4, 78 pts)
Season series: 67's 3-1-0-0 (IceDogs won only meeting in new year). Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: IceDogs 23rd, 67's 20th. Post-trade deadline records: IceDogs 21-6-2, 67's 18-8-3. Prediction: 'Dogs in 6.
Series in a sentence: The IceDogs closed down the Civic Centre three years ago, and now aim to close out the 67's first year back home at TD Place.
Why the IceDogs should win: Up front, Niagara boasts the "special K-9 unit" (stick tap: Greg Theberge) of centre Carter Verhaeghe and wily wings Josh Ho-Sang and Brendan Perlini, who can create chaos for opponents. Coach-GM Marty Williamson has also broadened Niagara's offensive arsenal, with Danish national junior team member Mikkel Aagaard enjoying a strong second half, with Anthony DiFruscia and Jordan Maletta have become counted-upon complementary threats.
Ho-Sang did not experience a playoff win in two seasons with Windsor. While he's not one to make easy assumptions about, one would assume there's an urge to make up for missing out as 16- and 17-year-old.
The 7-3 scoreline in the teams' only post-New Year's matchup might not have been a true reflection of how Niagara and Ottawa compare. The IceDogs, though, have two good offensive defencemen with 18-year-olds Vince Dunn and Blake Siebenaler and a physical presence with New York Rangers draftee Ryan Mantha. There's a chance for this to be a harbinger for the championship run Niagara is envisioning for 2016.
Why the 67's could win: Ottawa, under new coaches Jeff Brown and Mike Eastwood, has pulled itself up by the bootstraps. Its 4-13-3 record against top-3 teams, though, suggests the relatively young 67's can only run with the big dogs for so long. Still, they do have the knack for hanging around in games and Brown, who won a championship in the USHL last season, should have his charges ready. The extra home game is an added benefit.
Los Angeles Kings selections Alex Lintuniemi and Jacob Middleton are one of the conference's better first pairings and the 67's have balance up and down the lineup with sophomore Travis Konecny, third-year goal leader Dante Salituro and a respectable eighth-ranked power play. If 18-year-old goalie Liam Herbst rises to the occasion in his first playoff, Ottawa could make the doubters look silly.
(3) North Bay Battalion (37-20-11, 85 pts) vs. (6) Kingston Frontenacs (32-28-8, 72 pts)
Season series: Battalion 3-1-0-0 (one overtime win). Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Battalion 28th, Fronts 21st Post-trade deadline records: Battalion 18-10-4, Fronts 17-12-3. Prediction: Battalion in 7.
Series in a sentence: Nick Paul aims to be the immovable object to Sam Bennett's irresistible force.
Why the Battalion should win: The gang green are the favourite and are tough to beat at home, plus they have a good defence corps with overages Marcus McIvor and Brenden Miller (the franchise's all-time leader in defenceman scoring) and two good puck-movers, Kyle Wood and Miles Liberati.
North Bay can also work a team in the offensive zone, with mature 19-year-old NHL draft picks in Nick Paul and January adds Nick Moutrey and Ryan Kujawinski. They likely have more than enough depth to tax the Frontenacs in their own zone.
The Battalion do have a couple 'buts' — goalie Jake Smith hasn't replicated his 2014 playoff brilliance and past Stan Butler teams have gone cold offensively in the playoffs. That explains in part why almost everyone sees this is a seven-gamer waiting to happen.
Why the Fronts could win: Perhaps the Sam Bennett Effect will carry over to a best-of-7 series, who knows. Kingston is 10-1 with the Calgary Flames first-rounder, who had 11 goals and 24 points across his 11-game return. With Lawson Crouse as Bennett's cornerman and a sound last two lines of defence with goalie Lucas Peressini and rearguards Roland McKeown, Evan McEneny and Chad Duchesne, the Fronts are more cut out for the playoffs than they proved to be in 2014. In an interesting wrinkle, assistant coach John Goodwin was with North Bay for its run to the '14 final, so Kingston should have good intel on the Battalion.
The Frontenacs are 0-for-4 at North Bay Memorial Gardens over the past two years. Coming home for Game 3 with a split is a must.
(2) Barrie Colts (41-24-3, 85 pts) vs. (7) Belleville Bulls (27-33-8, 62 pts)
Season series: Colts 2-0-0-0. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Colts 25th, Bulls 55th. Post-trade deadline records: Colts 18-11-1, Bulls 9-16-4. Prediction: Colts in 5.
Series in a sentence: Three Colts have double the points of Belleville's top scorer, really.
Why the Colts should win: Even if the Bulls force Barrie coach Dale Hawerchuk to separate 100-point scorers Joseph Blandisi, Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane, the Colts have solid complementary scoring with Justin Scott and ex-Bull Garrett Hooey. A Belleville team that often gives up a lot of shots will be in tough to keep all of them under wraps.
One underplayed Barrie storyline is that goalie Mackenzie Blackwood has a garden-variety 3.49/.892 slash line since Feb. 1. The Colts are a very tough out when the 6-foot-4 goalie is dialled in, but he's had some off nights.
How the Bulls can stretch out the series: Goalie Charlie Graham is always capable of cadging a W by stopping a billion shots. The Bulls might also be able to use the Olympic-size ice at the Yardmen Arena to make the Colts fire away from the perimeter for games 3 and 4. Jordan Subban, who led the Bulls in scoring as a defenceman, can be an X-factor.
If that reads like straw-grasping, so be it. Belleville's fans deserve to see one post-season win before the franchise moves down the highway to Hamilton.
(1) Oshawa Generals (51-11-6, 108 pts) vs. (8) Peterborough Petes (26-36-6, 58 pts)
Season series: Generals 7-1-0-0. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Generals sixth, Petes 47th. Post-trade deadline records: Generals 21-6-4, Petes 12-17-2. Prediction: Generals in 4.
Series in a sentence: As close are they are geographically, that's how far apart they were in the standings.
Why the Generals should win: Oshawa is much deeper and well-balanced, with scorers such as Michael Dal Colle, two-way talents such as Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels and a multi-talented defence corps with an overage shutdown guy, Josh Brown, and prescient puck-movers Chris Carlisle and Mitchell Vande Sompel. If it grabs the first two games at GM Centre, it could be a quick knockout.
How the Petes can stretch out the series: The Petes are known to occasionally outwork teams in the offensive zone and have a cadre of playoff-seasoned forwards, Michael Clarke, Greg Betzold, Josh MacDonald, Nate Pancel and Steven Lorentz, plus a tough-minded defender with Cameron Lizotte. Coach Jody Hull and his staff also proved to be good at the small stuff when the Petes took down higher-seeded Kingston in Round 1 last spring.
Trouble for the Petes is, they have rarely sustained their peak output this season. Goalie Matt Mancina would also have to kick it up a notch, akin to how 2014 playoff neminder Andrew D'Agostini performed grand larceny against Kingston.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.