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Western Conference Playoff Preview

by Brandon Sudeyko (@intheoradio)

The ITO Crew put their collective heads together and came together with the Western Conference playoff preview.

London Knights v Saginaw Spirit

The Saginaw Spirit were a much better team over the second half of the season, as they were able to push past the Windsor Spitfires before pulling away from them in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Their reward? A first-round matchup with the high-powered London Knights. While the Spirit have impressed with their play, it’s hard to imagine that Saginaw has enough to eliminate the Knights, who set franchise-records for consecutive wins, with 24, and games with at least a point, 28, over a two-month span during the season. London would finish the season with fifty wins, eighteen more than Saginaw’s total for the year, a large gap between the two clubs.

In goal, Saginaw will likely ride Jake Paterson, while his same-name counterpart with the Knights, Jake Patterson, is likely to start the series on the bench. London released veteran Kevin Bailie, to make room for Anthony Stolarz, and Stolarz will be given every opportunity to lead his team a long way in this year’s playoffs. The Knights have also put together a very capable group of defenders to play in front of him, led by veterans Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington, and joined by dynamic players such as Nikita Zadorov and Dakota Mermis, making London a scary team to deal with. Saginaw’s group of defenders may not put up the same number’s as their London counterparts, but they bring a yeoman’s work-ethic every night, and have had success at making opposition forwards squirm. There are times when it feels like Dalton Young and Jason Shaw are always on the ice, Steven Strong and Grant Webermin fill in to give Saginaw a good top four.

Up front, however, the Spirit just don’t have enough goal scorers to make it a long series with the London Knights. Forty-goal scorers Garret Ross and Eric Locke will continue to put the puck in the net, but scoring becomes scarce relatively quick after that. Jimmy Lodge and Justin Kea can also light the lamp, but they will have to come up big to give Saginaw any chance. The Knights come into the series with a ton of talent up front, nine different forwards on the team scored at least ten goals this season, the most among any team. Draft-eligible Max Domi led the way with 39 markers this season, while wingers Seth Griffith and Bo Horvat both also scored over thirty. London also had three more players crack the twenty-goal plateau, Matt Rupert, Alex Broadhurst, and Josh Anderson, giving them a number of options to go to. While Saginaw should be commended for a solid run.

Prediction is London in five games.

Plymouth Whalers v Sarnia Sting

The Sarnia Sting are well aware that they come into this series labelled as the underdog, as the West Division champion Plymouth Whalers enter the post-season on an absolute roll, winners of eight in a row, and sixteen of their last seventeen games. Both teams boast powerful offenses, meaning we should see some entertaining hockey in this series, and the goaltender who plays the best could very well steal the series. The Whalers solidified their offense at the deadline, acquiring fifty-goal scorer Vince Trocheck, and he joins an excellent bunch of forwards, which includes thirty-goal scorers Garrett Meurs and Matt Mistele, as well as NHL prospects Tom Wilson, Stefan Noesen, and Rickard Rakell, among others. The Sting have no shortage of scorers in their own right, including Reid Boucher, who set a franchise-record with 62 goals, and Charles Sarault, who finished the season with 108 points.

Sarnia does bring an excellent group of defensemen into the series, as Anthony DeAngelo and Alex Basso split a great deal of the work-load. Craig Duininck and rookie Tyler Hore round out the top four for Sarnia, while Gianluca Curcuruto and Connor Carrick take on much of the defensive responsibility for Plymouth. The difference in the series could very well be the goaltending, as the Whalers appear to have given the net to Alex Nedeljkovic, who, in his first season, has supplanted Matt Mahalak as the starting goaltender. In Sarnia, there is no doubt as to who the number-one goaltender is, as they will turn to J.P. Anderson, who brings plenty of playoff experience after guiding Mississauga to the 2011 Memorial Cup Final.

While I don’t expect the Sarnia Sting to roll over a play dead for a Plymouth club that comes into the playoffs firing on all cylinders, I don’t think there is enough to predict a upset in this series.

Prediction in Plymouth in six games.

Owen Sound Attack v Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds

What would a playoff series be without storylines and boy does this series have them. From Daniel Catenacci’s return to S.S.M. to the renewed minor midget rivalry of Nick Cousins and Catenacci, to two of the smallest OHL markets locking heads this series.

Daniel was chosen 1st overall in the 2009 OHL Priority Selection by the Soo Greyhounds. He played 2 seasons up in Sault Ste Marie picking up 101 points in 132 games in the Red and White before asking to be dealt in the summer of 2011. While the reasons as to why he asked to be traded are now immaterial it should be noted that key Greyhounds Andrew Fritsch and Michael Schumacher came back the other way. While fan reaction has been rather subdued in his previous returns to the North it will be interesting to see if it is any different in the playoffs.

What may have been forgotten by some is the Rivalry that Daniel Catenacci and Nick Cousins had growing up playing youth hockey in the OMHA. In their Minor Midget year Daniels York Simcoe Express were a loaded group while Nick played for the much less heralded Quinte Red Devils. With Nick playing his normal methodical offensive game with a splash of antagonism here and being a pest there, the Red Devils were able to upset the Express for the league championship. While they say the hatchet was buried when they became teammates it will be interesting to see what transpires out on the ice. Does Nick get the better of him again at the next level?

With Big Market Teams like the London Knights, Windsor Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers winning their fair share of league titles there were some who wondered if small market teams could really compete in the OHL. In 2011 lead by Joey Hishon and Scott Stajcer, the Owen Sound Attack turned heads in the regular season by finishing 1st in the West but still there were questions as to whether or not they could parlay that regular season success into playoff success. After a grueling conference final against the Windsor Spitfires the Attack took on the Memorial Cup host Mississauga St. Michaels Majors in the league championship taking the series in 7 and showing all that small market teams can have success. The following off-season Kyle Dubas took over as GM of the Soo Greyhounds with the goal of turning the Soo Greyhounds into a league powerhouse even though they themselves are in small market. This is the teams 1st step in their quest to reach that level.

For Owen Sound, the team will have to take advantage of home ice. The Bayshore arena is small, crowded and loud. The Attack will need to use this to their advantage while the Owen Sound faithful cheer for the home team and jeer the opposition. The Attack need to take a careful approach to each game as the Greyhounds try to rope their opponents into wagon-fire hockey, in which they excel at. One of the main areas of focus for the Attack is neutralizing Colin Miller and Ryan Sproul. Not only are the duo strong defensively, they have to be aware of the offence that the pair can create, 40 goals this season to be exact and a total of 121 points between them.

The Greyhounds keys to success is simple as well. Their best players have to be their best players. Very few times this year has the support cast been able to play for W’s this season. Cousins, Brandon Alderson, Sproul and Miller have to continue to be the big four for Sault Ste Marie. They need consistent goaltending from Matt Murray. Justin Nichols has done a great job as a backup but this team will find its success with Murray between the pipes. Consistency is an issue as he is either lights out, or the red light doesn’t turn off. Not to say the blame is solely on his shoulders, but if he can play consistent through 4-7 games, the likelihood of success rises. Finally, the Greyhounds have to win the special teams battle. Their 17th ranked PK will need to drastically improve given the offensive weapons Owen Sound. Now both teams have a 20.7% power play but that doesn’t mean that either team couldn’t have a 2 or more PP goal night that swings the series. If they are to have any success it has to start with the special teams.

By The Numbers
50 – Total number of playoff experience in games played on the Greyhound Roster
0 – Total number of playoff minutes between the pipes for the Greyhounds
244 – Total number of playoff experience in games played on the Attack Roster excluding the 22 for Jarrod Maidens who has yet to suit up this season.
501 – Total number of playoff minutes between the pipes for the Attack, although it should be noted that Jordon Binnington had some rather high leverage minutes on the Attack’s run to the OHL championship in 2011
20.7%, 84.3% - The PP and PK numbers respectively for the Owen Sound Attack good enough for 10th and 2nd overall in the league
20.7%, 76.1% - The PP and PK numbers respectively for the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds good enough for 9th and 17th overall in the league
7 – The number of Points Daniel Catenacci picked up in 2 games vs the Hounds this year. 2G and 5A. The 3.5 points per game were just slightly more than his season average of 1.17 PPG
1 ,2 and 4 – Positions overall in defenseman scoring for Ryan Sproul, Cody Ceci and Colin Miller respectively. While Ryan and Colin were able to average more than a point per game in limited action Cody picked up a respectable 64 in 69 games this season.
7 – The number of shutouts picked up by Jordon Binnington this season. Good enough for first in the league with Garret Sparks of the Guelph Storm.
5 – The number of Shorthanded goals picked up by Attack forward Cameron Brace. Good enough for 1st in the OHL this year.

My prediction is Owen Sound in 5.

Kitchener Rangers v Guelph Storm

Goaltending. This series will be broken down into goaltending. John Gibson for the Kitchener Rangers and Garret Sparks for the Guelph Storm. Sparks is an absolute workhorse, registering a season where he has played over 50 games for the second year in a row. In fact he played if 60 games this season, one more than last years total of 59 games. The difference in his game? Experience and confidence, something that he will need a lot of. This year the Storm is a faster and more physical team than last year and Garret has stepped up to the plate lowering his goals against by .5 (2.65GAA and upping his save percentage to .917, a thousandth higher than last season. The difference is only 3 more saves on the season, but allowing 19 less goals in one additional game. In the crease to the other side there is Anaheim Prospect John Gibson who had to battle through another injury prone season. But when he is healthy he is arguably the best goaltender in the OHL. His statistics do not tell how great he can in fact be, but the year by year comparison shows a high level of growth as a goaltender, showing the same consistency that you expect with him in the pipes. Year over year, Gibson decreased his Goals against  by .34 to a 2.41 this season while maintaining his .928SV%. Again, his numbers are small compared to the sample size of Sparks, but the stability in the pipes is what Kitchener needs. The role of the back up is of importance to the Kitchener Rangers, when needed they can put in their OA backup Joel Vinneau to battle just as hard and earn the W for his team when called upon. To back up Garret… well it is Garret. Without an injury, I do not expect to see either back up goaltender in this series, regardless of how bad it may get for either side. Gibson holds a 1-0 record over the Storm this season, while Sparks is 3-4 this season versus Kitchener.

Kitchener offence is heavily relied upon a single line featuring Matt Puempel, the Rangers only 30+ goal scorer, 35 goals in 51 games this season. Tobias Reider is your second option as the teams second leading goal scorer with 27 goals before it drops off to rookie Justin Bailey with 17 goals. Many times this season if the top line has not been scoring, Kitchener relied upon their ’95 line’ composed of Bailey, Brent Pedersen and Josh Sterk. Bringing in Derek Schoenmakers and Josh Leivo have added some forward depth, but they will need to find more scoring in the playoffs as they have scored the lowest goals of any western conference playoff team. The Storm counter with a very balanced top 6. One forward, Scott Kosmachuk, with 35 goals, a pair of forwards with 20+ goals, Zack Mitchell (22) and Brock McGinn (28) and the remaining 9 regular forwards all with 10+ goals. The first line can beat you pretty, or the fourth line can pound in front of the net to score, either way the defence will have to stand tall for Kitchener if they wish to prevent any of the 12 forwards from scoring, and will have to pay a price every shift to do so.

Defensively, the Rangers stocked up by adding Frank Corrado at the trade deadline. His presence has solidified the top four, Ryan Murphy, Ben Fanelli and Even McEneny have enjoyed the presence of Corrado as he is able to eat up a lot of minutes, and free up ice for his partner and forwards despite not being considered an offensive threat. Ryan Murphy will be relied on to lead the defensive and sometimes the forwards, to create plays out of nothing, something the Kitchener crowd has seen for the last four seasons. Guelph has some big, mean defenceman starting with Andrey Pedan. The 6’4” Russian defenceman can not only fire the puck in the net, 14 goals, but has no problem putting you through the boards or making it unpleasant physically for the opposition, his 145 PIM lead the team and can show you how tough he plays. The additions of Brock Beukeboom and Saverio Posa will definitely help the backend of the Storm on the ice, but also off ice, as both players have had lengthy playoff runs in previous seasons. The absence of Matt Finn is going to hurt the Storm but those three, plus Zach Leslie will be seeing a lot of ice, and should be able to handle whatever Kitchener can throw at them.

Prediction is Guelph in 7.

References (5)

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