The Western Conference playoff picture is set as eight teams embark on the 2018 OHL Playoffs on Thursday night. Here’s a look at the four different series matchups.
SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS (1) vs. SAGINAW SPIRIT (8) – #SSMvsSAG
At the top of the heap from wire-to-wire, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds are eager to put their skills on display in the 2018 OHL Playoffs as they enter off a franchise-best 55-7-3-3 campaign.
Known for their speed and dangerous transition game powered by star two-way defender Conor Timmins (8-33—41), the Greyhounds finished the season with six different 30-goal scorers including star centreman Morgan Frost (42-70–112), gritty winger Boris Katchouk (42-43–85), fellow Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Taylor Raddysh (33-50–83), big captain Tim Gettinger (33-36–69), Anaheim Ducks pick Jack Kopacka (31-32–63) and overage speedster Hayden Verbeek (30-31–61).
Sault Ste. Marie also benefitted from the emergence of 19-year-old defenceman Mac Hollowell (12-44–56) and draft eligible Swedish rookie Rasmus Sandin (12-33–45), who along with midseason acquisition Jordan Sambrook (10-29–39) filled minutes when Timmins won gold with Canada at the World Juniors and battled injury woes later in the season.
In goal, 40-game winner Matthew Villalta (40-5–2-2, 2.58, .908) will square off against Saginaw overage veteran Evan Cormier (24-24-8-0, 3.18, .900) as he gets his final shot in the OHL Playoffs, looking to backstop a younger Spirit squad past the powerhouse Greyhounds.
Up against a Greyhounds team that won a franchise record 23 straight games this season, the Spirit managed to string together a few wins of their own, getting hot over stints in both November and December. The Spirit lost 11 of their last 13 games of the season though and will need to turn things around in short order if they hope to stand a chance against Sault Ste. Marie.
Saginaw managed to defeat the CHL’s fifth-ranked Sarnia Sting three different times this season, showing that they can compete with some of the league’s best when they’re executing.
The future is bright in Saginaw as rookies Blade Jenkins (20-24–44) and Jake Goldowski (11-10–21) climbed the depth chart while sophomore Damien Giroux (19-24–43) took positive steps.
Overage blueliner Marcus Crawford (13-40–53) leads the team offensively from the back end while big captain Keaton Middleton (4-20–24) can expect regular shutdown assignments against Sault Ste. Marie’s top unit.
The Greyhounds open the series at home on Friday, looking to get the jump on the eighth place Spirit right out of the gate. Games 1 and 2 of the series will be broadcast live on Sportsnet, with Friday’s Game 1 airing on Sportsnet 360 before Game 2 can be seen across the country on Sportsnet and Sportsnet One.
Playoff History: This marks the fourth time that Sault Ste. Marie and Saginaw have met in the OHL Playoffs with the Greyhounds having won all three encounters. – 2015 SSM def. SAG 4-0 – 1st round / 2008 SSM def. SAG 4-0 – 1st round / 2007 SSM def. SAG 4-2 – 1st round
Series Schedule: Game 1, Fri., March 23 at Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 p.m.
Game 2, Sun., March 25 at Sault Ste. Marie – 3:00 p.m.
Game 3, Mon., March 26 at Saginaw – 7:05 p.m.
Game 4, Wed., March 28 at Saginaw – 7:05 p.m.
Game 5, Fri., March 30 at Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 p.m.*
Game 6, Sat., March 31 at Saginaw – 7:05 p.m.*
Game 7, Mon., April 2 at Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 p.m.* *if necessary
Who will advance to the Western Conference Semi-Final between the Soo Greyhounds and Saginaw Spirit?
Total Votes: 466
KITCHENER RANGERS (2) vs. GUELPH STORM (7) – #KITvsGUE
For teams just a half-hour apart, the Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm don’t have an extensive history in the OHL Playoffs.
Meeting for just the fourth time, the two Highway 7 rivals prepare for what’s sure to be an intense series as the Midwest Division champion Rangers open the series at home on Friday.
Kitchener is back atop the Midwest for the first time since 2008, relying on a well-established core including Florida Panthers prospect Adam Mascherin (40-46–86), captain Connor Bunnaman (27-23–50) and diminutive fan favourite Joseph Garreffa (12-53–65) up front.
2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup champions Logan Stanley (15-27–42) and Logan Brown (22-26–48) have slotted into the Rangers lineup seamlessly as has Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Kole Sherwood (30-30–60) who came over from the Flint Firebirds just prior to the start of the season.
Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith (17-13–30) will face his former club as the Storm try and get back on track quickly after a difficult final month of the season.
While Kitchener has big bodies in Brown, Smith and Stanley, the Storm counter with 6-foot-6 leading scorer Isaac Ratcliffe (41-27–68) and big 6-foot-5 Dallas Stars prospect Liam Hawel (14-27–41).
The ever-entertaining Ryan Merkley (13-54–67) hopes to lead the Storm to victory with his sharp offensive vision and ability to find teammates in scoring areas. 2014 OHL champion Garrett McFadden (6-38–44) joins Merkley on the back end, looking to take the Storm back to the big dance this spring.
In goal, sophomore netminder Anthony Popovich (29-21-4-3, 3.44, .902) faced more shots than any other OHL goaltender this season and will go head-to-head with Kitchener overager Mario Culina (15-11-2-1, 2.89, .913) who burst onto the scene with 10 straight wins in a Ranger uniform upon being acquired.
Don’t be surprised if this series gets physical early. Fans in Kitchener and Guelph know there’s no love lost between these two clubs.
Playoff History: This marks the fourth time that Kitchener and Guelph have met in the OHL Playoffs. – 2013 KIT def. GUE 4-1 – 1st round / 2003 KIT def. GUE 4-1 – 2nd round / 2002 GUE def. KIT 4-0 – 1st round
Series Schedule: Game 1, Fri., March 23 at Kitchener – 7:30 p.m.
Game 2, Sun., March 25 at Kitchener – 7:00 p.m.
Game 3, Tues., March 27 at Guelph – 7:00 p.m.
Game 4, Wed., March 28 at Guelph – 7:00 p.m.
Game 5, Fri., March 30 at Kitchener – 7:30 p.m.*
Game 6, Sun., April 1 at Guelph – 2:00 p.m.*
Game 7, Tues., April 3 at Kitchener – 7:00 p.m.* *if necessary
Who will advance to the Western Conference Semi-Final between the Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm?
Total Votes: 428
SARNIA STING (3) vs. WINDSOR SPITFIRES (6) – #SARvsWSR
Another Western Conference divisional rivalry ignites this week as the Sarnia Sting and Windsor Spitfires settle their differences in first round action.
The Sting had a season to remember, winning a franchise record 46 games while also stringing together a new record 14-straight victories from Sept. 30 to Nov. 2nd. Their offence on many nights seemed destined to put up a crooked number as the prowess of Jordan Kyrou (39-70–109), Adam Ruzicka (36-36–72) and Drake Rymsha (31-42–73) among others overwhelmed opposing defences.
Windsor native Anthony Salinitri (27-31–58) has played his hometown Spitfires tough all season, recording eight goals, two assists and 10 points against them in six meetings. Overage defenceman-turned-winger Jordan Ernst (27-27–54) joins Salinitri as a dependable source of secondary scoring while new Sarnia additions in defenceman Cam Dineen (20-44–64), fleet-footed forward Jonathan Ang (25-45–70) and power centreman Michael Pezzetta (23-29–52) have all given the club a shot in the arm.
Sarnia excelled in the special teams departments, registering the league’s fifth-ranked power play at 24.2% while also putting forth the OHL’s best penalty kill at 88.5%, tying Windsor’s league record from last season.
The goaltending matchup in this series is an intriguing one as Sting overager Justin Fazio (37-11-3-0, 2.85, .918), who has re-written a number of franchise records this year, goes up against 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup champion Michael DiPietro (29-21-3-1, 2.79, .910).
DiPietro led the league with seven shutouts this season, backstopping a rebuilding Spitfires club into the sixth seed. Windsor was led by a trio of 20-goal scorers in Cole Purboo (21-28–49), Jake Smith (20-28–48) and mid-season addition Curtis Douglas (22-24–46). Nineteen year-old winger Igor Larionov returned from injury to finish the season with 13 points (3-10–13) over his final 10 games.
The Sting had Windsor’s number during the regular season, but with DiPietro in the crease, the Spits have as good a chance as any team to steal a few games against a higher-ranked opponent.
Playoff History: This marks the fifth time that Sarnia and Windsor have met in the OHL Playoffs. – 2008 SAR def. WSR 4-1 – 1st round / 2000 WSR def. SAR 4-3 – 1st round / 1997 SAR def. WSR 4-1 – 1st round / 1995 WSR def. SAR 4-0 – 1st round
Series Schedule: Game 1, Fri., March 23 at Sarnia – 7:05 p.m.
Game 2, Sat., March 24 at Sarnia – 7:05 p.m.
Game 3, Tues., March 27 at Windsor – 7:05 p.m.
Game 4, Thurs., March 29 at Windsor – 7:05 p.m.
Game 5, Fri., March 30 at Sarnia – 7:05 p.m.*
Game 6, Sun., April 1 at Windsor – 2:05 p.m.*
Game 7, Tues., April 3 at Sarnia – 7:05 p.m.* *if necessary
Who will advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals between the Sarnia Sting and Windsor Spitfires?
Total Votes: 404
OWEN SOUND ATTACK (4) vs. LONDON KNIGHTS (5)
The Owen Sound Attack were the only team to defeat the 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup champion London Knights in the playoffs two years ago. This year the Bears have the upper hand with home ice advantage earned on the final weekend of the regular season as the series gets underway on Thursday night in Owen Sound.
Vegas Golden Knights prospect Nick Suzuki (42-58–100) comes off the first 100-point season by an Attack player since Bobby Ryan hit triple digits back in 2007. Suzuki joins Kevin Hancock (24-45–89), Jonah Gadjovich (25-23–48), Maksim Sushko (31-29–60) and Ethan Szypula (19-37–56) as part of the returning veteran core that led the club to a Western Conference Final appearance last spring.
2018 NHL Draft prospect Aidan Dudas (31-34–65) stepped up as a regular contributor this season while late-blooming power play quarterback Sean Durzi (15-34–49) has returned from an injury that sidelined him from mid-January to mid-March, helping the Bears win six in a row to close out the season.
An interesting element of Owen Sound’s season saw the club take over 700 more shots than their opponents, outshooting teams in 61 of their 68 games this season.
The fifth-seeded London Knights feature an up-and-coming young roster centred around draft eligible defenceman Evan Bouchard (25-62–87) who came within two points of setting a Knights single season franchise record by a defenceman.
The departure of veterans Cliff Pu, Max Jones, Robert Thomas and Sam Miletic at the midway point of the season opened up new opportunities for Ottawa Senators prospect Alex Formenton (29-19–48), former first round pick Liam Foudy (24-16–40) along with additions Nathan Dunkley (21-36–57) and Sergey Popov (10-14–24).
Goaltending will be a factor in the series as London’s Joseph Raaymakers (29-13-1-1, 2.84, .910) looks to strike back at the Attack following a series elimination at the hands of Owen Sound as a member of the Soo Greyhounds last spring. At the other end, the Attack have searched for consistency in the crease throughout the season and are looking to veteran Olivier Lafreniere (20-15-1-2, 3.58, .875) to be the man for the job.
The Knights have won at least one playoff round in each of the past six years while the Attack have high expectations after reaching the conference final last spring.
One very competitive team is going to be left disappointed after this series.
Playoff History: This marks the seventh time that London and Owen Sound have met in the OHL Playoffs. – 2016 LDN def. OS 4-2 – 1st round / 2011 OS def. LDN 4-2 – 1st round / 2007 LDN def. OS 4-0 – 1st round / 2006 LDN def. OS 4-2 – 2nd round / 1999 LDN def. OS 4-1 – Western Conference Finals / 1992 LDN def. OS 4-1 – 1st round
Series Schedule: Game 1, Thurs., March 22 at Owen Sound – 7:00 p.m.
Game 2, Sat., March 24 at Owen Sound – 7:30 p.m.
Game 3, Mon., March 26 at London – 7:00 p.m.
Game 4, Thurs., March 29 at London – 7:00 p.m.
Game 5, Sat., March 31 at Owen Sound – 7:30 p.m.*
Game 6, Mon., April 2 at London – 7:00 p.m.*
Game 7, Tues., April 3 at Owen Sound – 7:00 p.m.* *if necessary
Who will advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals between the Owen Sound Attack and London Knights?