Thursday, April 02, 2009

OHL 'O9: Who let the 'Dogs in?

Someone asked me the other day if the OHL playoffs had started yet. "Um, well, sort of ..."

Neate, as he's wont to do, drove into greater detail on the OHL's first-round attendance crisis last week, but the short story is when 16 of 20 teams make the playoffs, you're bound to get to get a couple of lulus and a few duds. Consider Tuesday's Game 7 thriller between Ottawa and Niagara as OHL '09's version of a buy-in game. Incidentally, it finished when 18-year-old Andrew Agozzino (pictured), who NHL Central Scouting doesn't even have rated for this year's NHL draft, ended 72-year-old coaching legend Brian Kilrea's career on a sour note. Of course, you can count the number of hockey men who have ended their careers with victories on a really small abacus.

So let's set up the second round.

Belleville (1) vs. Niagara (6)

The Niagara IceDogs, with their 63-point, sub-.500 regular season, are now the lowest seeded team in the OHL playoffs. In comparison, Belleville’s 98 points and league-best record (42 points in 25 games) since the trade deadline make the Bulls a horn-adorned Goliath here.

As good coaches aught, Bulls’ George Burnett and IceDogs’ Mario Cicchillo both told reporters Belleville’s sweepp of the four-game regular season series means zilch now. Maybe somebody should remind Cicchillo that his club just carried a season series edge to the first-round’s only upset of the 613 Soixante-Septs.
The IceDavids (now I'm stretching) are overmatched everywhere: They've got a great No. 1 D-man, but even Alex Pietrangelo isn't as good as Belleville’s top D-stud, P.K. Subban. Forwards? You wouldn't dream of taking ‘91s Agozzino and Alex Friesen over Eric Tangradi or Bryan Cameran, both NHL picks as well as 88- and 81-point seasons respectively. Goal? Jeremy Smith is a solid goalie, but he’s up against near-consensus league-best Mike Murphy.
Even Belleville’s ice is bigger, close to Olympic sized. Niagara’s surface is not even NHL regulation. That could be the IceDogs only edge, when the series shifts south, albeit, which will make this series go to Belleville in 5, not 4.

Brampton (2) vs. Mississauga (3)

I love when team nicknames line up nicely like the Battalion taking on the Majors. Can we get through this without one war reference?

Another series where the coaches aren’t interested in reading between the lines of a dominant season series edge for the favoured Brampton Battalion; they won seven of eight meetings. So I’ll do it for them.
Brampton’s chalk full of star power with the OHL’s best player Cody Hodgson, a sure top five NHL pick this summer Matt Duchene, the OHL’s top European player and/or top rookie (take your pick on adjecives) Evgeny Grachev, and the American world junior goalie Thomas McCollum. What’s that mean? Well, all three Batt forwards had game-winning goals during the season series, so you can probably do the math.

Don’t count the Majors as pushovers, though, as they improved steadily throughout the season. They do have a dominating defenceman in Cameron Gaunce, who led team scoring with six points in their five-game, first-round series win over Barrie – a swift win that counts as a bigger surprise to most people than Brampton’s sweep of an overmatched Peterborough Petes. Don’t look past how much Missy's triple-overtime victory in Game 5 meant. After winning the second-longest OHL playoff game on the road, they’ve been there and done that already (always a consideration when you’re talking teenage hockey players) and won’t be rattled if they take their Peel Region rivals to an overtime or two.

Oh, and this is the first time a Mississauga team has met Brampton in the OHL playoffs since the Battalion and the formerly-Mississauga-now-Niagara IceDogs came into the league together 10 years ago. Battalion in 6.

Windsor (1) vs. Plymouth (4)

This is the second-round matchup most watchers spied when they looked (forgivably) past the first round. That’s because the Plymouth Whalers had the West’s second-best record after the trade deadline. Their 41 points in 29 games after that pivotal point in the OHL season puts them in the same conversation as upcoming opponents, the Spitfires (46 pts in 28 games), and the ever-present London Knights (40 pts in 29 games).

What’s still going against Plymouth is a 6-2 season series edge for Windsor, including recent one-sided wins of 9-4 and 5-1. And while this cross-border rivalry has a nice geographical symmetry to it, the atmosphere in the teams’ respective barns will be like black hockey tape and white hockey tape.

The Spits shot through the first round, relatively unchallenged, the talent of Attack star-in-the-making Joey Hishon notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the goaltending of Matt Hackett and his unreal .970 save percentage turned what was supposed to be long series against Sarnia into a five-game poaching by the Whalers. Be sure Windsor sniper Taylor Hall won’t average three points per game in this series like he did against Owen Sound. The lunch-bucket boys will have a say in this hard-fought series. With Hall, Ryan Ellis, Greg Nemisz in Windsor, and Matt Caria and Chris Terry in Plymouth, there’s no shortage of firepower here, either. Windsor in 7.

London (2) vs. Saginaw (3)

Maybe this one should be considered the haves vs. have-nots (or the have-finallys, actually). The perennial powerhouse Knights have their star-studed lineup ready for the Saginaw Spirit, whose first round sweep of Guelph was the team’s first playoff series victory since moving to Michigan from North Bay in 2002.

Saginaw did it with a sweep of Guelph, too. Meanwhile, London stumbled a bit, just a bit, in a five-game victory over Erie and will need to get its groove back.
London’s laced with firepower in John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Justin Taylor, Daniel Erlich, Phil Varone and Philip McRae, not to mention a pair of offensive defencemen in Michael Del Zotto and John Carlson. Saginaw’s attack is more stream-lined behind vets Jack Combs, Tyler Murovich and Chris Chappell along with a big, strong defence.
London in 6 because the Hunters have been here before.

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