Palpable potential energy follows die-hard fans through the doors of junior hockey barns this time of year as the OHL playoffs begin. Everyone starts the tournament at scratch, and even the fans of the No. 8 seeds can conjure fairy tale scenarios. Case and point, the Sudbury Wolves are one of four teams opening the second season tonight, taking on the barrelling Bulls in Belleville, the hottest team in the OHL. In case you forget, Sudbury is the most recent franchise to make a wildly unpredictable run as a No. 6 seed in 2007 – the odd duck allowed to sneak past the systemic barriers to make people believe anyone can be president; but we digress.
Don't expect that to happen this year. While the 4-5 matchup will be a battle by virtue of the way the Majors and Colts match up, there's a pretty big divide between the conference's top four and the rest. Even if Barrie did pull off last year's big first-round surprise, I'm not buying they've got the horses. How's that for a playoff-inspired cliche?
If you want to get a look at the full OHL playoff sked, check out Terry Doyle at loosepucks, one of my favourite OHL blogs.
Belleville (1) vs. Sudbury (8)
Vitals - Belleville: 47-17-2-2, 98pts … G Mike Murphy (Carolina Hurricanes) led OHL in goals against average and save percentage … big-game experience abounds after a Memorial Cup berth last year … best record in entire OHL down the stretch (21-4 since trade deadline; even better than the West's best, Windsor).
Sudbury: 26-35-2-4, 59 pts … clinging to life support, with worst record of the league's 16 playoff teams since the deadline ... most goals allowed of those 16 teams, too.
Breakdown: Sudbury reached the OHL final that spring as the East’s No. 6 seed – beating the Bulls in six in the third round. That Wolves run has inspired the hope of every underdog, no matter how big, since. The only similarity this time is coaches George Burnett and Mike Foligno reprising their roles, but Foligno will have to do a lot more than out-coach Burnett this time given the talent divide between these rosters.
Series-breaker: Murphy will be the key to the playoffs for Belleville, but he won’t need to steal this series. Two time world-junior fave P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens) loves playing in the Nickel City and racked up nine points in four games against the Wolves this year. Bulls in 4.
Brampton (2) vs. Peterborough (7)
Vitals - Brampton: 47-19-1-1, 96 pts … Cody Hodgson (Vancouver Canucks) ranks third in points per game and has lit up Peterborough with 10 points in three meetings.
Peterborough: 28-37-1-2, 59 pts … worst penalty kill among playoff teams … this team’s still building with likely first-round NHL pick Zack Kassian (’91) and underager Ryan Spooner (’92) counting as two of the team’s top three scorers.
Breakdown: These teams are simply built differently. The closest the Petes came to beating the Battalion this season was a shootout loss in November. Otherwise, Brampton won the other three meetings by three goals or more.
Shrewd moves at the deadline by Battalion coach/GM Stan Butler – including picking up one of the league’s top ‘tenders, Thomas McCollum (Detroit Red Wings), from Guelph – give this team the complexion of one Bulter can actually take deep into the post-season.
Series-breaker: Like Murphy, McCollum’s best work will come later in the playoffs. This series will be all about Hodgson and draft-eligible speedster Matt Duchene (’91), who have 17 points combined against the Petes this year, shifting into playoff gear. Battalion in 4.
Ottawa (3) vs. Niagara (6)
Vitals - Ottawa: 40-21-5-2, 87 pts … excellent special teams rank first in power play (23.9%) and third in penalty kill (83.5%) in Eastern Conference.
Niagara: 26-31-5-6, 63 pts … Won season series 3-1, with one victory in a shootout … skidding into post-season with just two wins in past 10 games.
Breakdown: Don’t read too much into Niagara’s edge in the season series. The IceDogs are rebuilding. Their leading scorer is draft-eligible Andrew Agozzino ('91), whose 56 points would rank fifth on an extremely deep 67’s.
Led by centre Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks), Ottawa’s top line with Anthony Nigro and local boy Corey Cowick on the wings, plays with ridiculous chemistry on the power play and even strength. They anchor a group of seven 67's forwards with a minimum 23 goals this season.
Series-breaker: It could be legendary coach Brian Kilrea, coaching his last OHL playoffs. No doubt the season-long feting of Killer has left an impression on this group. They’ll be trying to extend his coaching career as long as they can. Ottawa in 6.
Mississauga (4) vs. Barrie (5)
Vitals - Mississauga: 39-26-1-2, 81 pts … St. Mike's hasn't won more than a single game in a playoff series since 2004, and is 2-16 over the last four post-seasons.
Barrie: 30-33-3-2, 65 pts … managed to split the season series 3-3 and knows St. Mike's well in the East's only inter-divisional first-round matchup.
Breakdown: There’s not much star power in this series, but the Majors' team concept has precipitated the OHL’s third-best power play (22.5%) and a top-four penalty kill (84.5%). Meanwhile, the Colts have the series' only point-per-game forward in Alex Hutchings. Barrie's junior nats alum Stefan Della Rovere is better known for his combination of 27 goals, 146 PIMs and gritty edge than sniping power. This series should boil down to a chess match between Barrie bench boss Marty Williamson and Majors coach/GM Dave Cameron, who can both institute defensive game plans with the best of them.
Series-breaker: The Majors special teams and the fact they have a dependable No. 1 goalie in Chris Carrozzi will prevent Barrie from a second consecutive upset in Round 1 of the OHL playoffs. Majors in 7.
Stay tuned for the a look at the OHL's wild west.
Photo by OHL Images.