The Battalion and the Spitfires: hmmm, let’s see if we can get through a preview of the OHL final, which starts tonight in Windsor without resorting to dozens of dirty war-infused hyperbolic clichés sports writers live off this time of year.
Or we could go with the most obvious question lede: Can Battalion general Cody Hodgson shoot down the Spitfires and earn yet another medal?Hodgson is the most decorated player in junior hockey right now and probably the best hockey player outside the NHL. And if the Battalion is to knock off Windsor, ranked as Canadian junior's No.1 team for the bulk of '08-'09, he'll be the catalyst.
While Hodgson's hockey acumen is nothing new at this point - he did, after all, lead the WJC in scoring as an alternate captain and was named the OHL's most outstanding player this week - In reality, the 2009 OHL final is a sweet breeze of fuzzy-faced freshness full of players, coaches and fans who haven't been here before.
There's no doubting backroom deals at OHL draft time systematically keep the same clubs on the top of the heap. Still, the right to play in the OHL championship series still remains a socialist ideal. Brampton and Windsor will become the 12th and 13th clubs to reach a league final in the past eight seasons. During that time, neither the Spits nor the Battalion caught a whiff of the league finals. It's taken the Battalion 11 seasons since expansion to get out of the first round. Windsor's last league final was 21 years ago. Between 2001 and 2008 these two counted just six playoff series wins between them.
So Spits coach-GM team of Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel, and Brampton’s one-man coach-GM Stan Butler will probably remind their charges that this chance doesn’t come around too often. Perhaps they’ll remind themselves. Although Butler knows this lesson well – he's been with Brampton for all 11 seasons and is finally here. While Boughner and Rychel have taken their team from worst to first in just three seasons since jumping in the Spits' cockpit, the city of Windsor hasn’t gone this deep into spring hockey in two decades.
Rating the regular season: Windsor (57-10-1, 115 pts) was ranked the top team in Canada for most of the season, which instantly slots the Spits as favourites here. Brampton (47-19-2, 96 pts) racked up the same amount of points as Windsor (46) after the trade deadline.
Playoff payoff (2009 playoff numbers): Windsor’s (12-3, 79gf-49ga, PP 26.2%, PK 78.2%) Western Conference final victory over London must be the hardest fought five-game series on record in that every game went to overtime. Brampton (12-4, 59gf-44ga, PP 19.5%, PK 83.1%), and Butler, proved something by beating the favoured Bulls in six games on the Eastern front.
Youthful exuberance: Adding to the haven’t-been-here, haven’t-done-this vibe is the youth of some of this series’ biggest stars. The most purely gifted offensive forward in this series, Windsor’s Taylor Hall (late ’91 birthdate), isn’t even eligible for the NHL draft until 2010 – and he’s been dynamic in the playoffs for Windsor with 27 points (11g, 16a) in 15 games. Who doesn’t know and love the puck skills of Ryan Ellis (’91) after he became a media fave during the World Juniors? He’s tied with Hall for the team lead in points through victories over Owen Sound in 4 games, Plymouth in 6, and London in 5. Ellis’ll go in the top half of this summer’s NHL draft.
Brampton’s Matt Duchene is ranked even higher than Ellis for the ’09 Entry Draft. Scouting service Red Line Report even suggested recently that he’s a better prospect than John Tavares after one sizzled and the other fizzled this post-season. Duchene’s speed, two-way play and hockey smarts has been on display in the playoffs as Brampton knocked off Peterborough in 4, Mississauga St. Mike’s in 6 and Belleville in 6.
Game-changers: far as NHL-ready talent is concerned, Brampton has the three best in this series: Hodgson (Vancouver ’08, 10th), Evgeny Grachev (NY Rangers ’08, 3rd) and goalie Thomas McCollum (Detroit ’08, 1st).
Even before Hodgson played a leadership role for Canada’s world gold-winning juniors, he proved his value in Brampton following a late return to the OHL when the NHL Canucks kept him around out of training camp. He strolled back into the Bunker and his presence ignited Brampton’s blazing 16-game winning streak of October-November. The team had started 2-6 start without him. Hodgson is one of the most dangerous players in the OHL, but he’s obviously also the guy the team rallies around. He makes everyone better.
McCollum, a NHL first-rounder, rates better than Windsor’s starter Andrew Engelage, an undrafted overager. His numbers suggest he's the best goalie Butler's ever had. But, as has been the case all season, maybe that gives Engelage a little more incentive.
Windsor’s depth outclasses Brampton’s by a long shot. The club boasts gritty sniper Dale Mitchell (Toronto ’07, 3rd rounder), role player-turned-playoff clutch Eric Wellwood (undrafted ’90 and a Windsor boy, to boot) who scored two of the Spits’ OT winners versus London, and skilled Greg Nemisz (Calgary '08, 1st) as well as experienced blueliners Harry Young (New Jersey ’08, 7th), Ben Shutron (Chicago ’06, 4th) and Rob Kwiet.
Breakdown: Part of me thinks the leadership value of Hodgson-McCollum might be enough to finally put the Battalion over the top after a stretch of three regular season division titles in three years yielded so little post-season success.
But the fact remains, despite what people say about the pansification of hockey, big and tough still matters in the OHL playoffs. The Spitfires, the OHL’s most penalized team in the regular season by a long shot, have that in spades. They’ve got the artillery and are battle-ready (shit, almost made it).
Windsor moves on to the Memorial Cup with a tough six-game series victory.