Thursday night, one of the biggest rivalries of 2011 is renewed, as the Niagara IceDogs prepare to battle the Oshawa Generals in the opening round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. Last spring, these same two teams went to war in the second round, a five game series won by the IceDogs, but marred by bitterness from both camps. Much of the bitterness surrounded Generals forward Lucas Lessio, originally a Niagara draft pick who declined to report, forcing an eventual trade to Oshawa. The series is remembered for the physicality seen throughout, as neither team shied away from throwing the big hit or dropping the mitts, and the same is expected by many when the teams renew hostilities.

OFFENCE

The Oshawa Generals live and die with their team offence, and this series will be no different, as their core group of scorers, led by New York Rangers draft pick Christian Thomas, will need to be at their best to give the Gens any hope. Nicklas Jensen will need to snap a recent funk, and veterans like Andy Andreoff and Canadian World Junior Boone Jenner will need to lead by example. Center Scott Laughton will be watched closely throughout the series, as scouts will look to see how he plays ahead of this summer’s NHL draft.

As good as Oshawa’s offence is, the Niagara IceDogs group can boast just as many, if not more, top scorers, including Ryan Strome and Freddie Hamilton, who played alongside Jenner representing Canada. Andrew Agozzino and Alex Friesen form part of the supporting cast, and GM Marty Williamson brought in veterans Brett Ritchie and Tom Kuhnhackl is separate deals this season to add to their dangerous offence. If that isn’t enough to give the IceDogs the edge, their depth does, as Niagara is truly a team that can roll all four lines and post a threat to score. Players like David Pacan and Steven Shipley add much needed playoff depth, and the IceDogs boast seven forwards who scored 20 or more goals this season.

Advantage: Niagara

DEFENCE

Niagara’s Dougie Hamilton joined his brother and other teammates at this year’s World Junior Tournament, and has been a leader on the IceDogs all season long. That said, Niagara still went out and brought in help, acquiring yet another World Junior in Jamie Oleksiak. The IceDogs have some depth beyond those two, and Brock Beukeboom and Jesse Graham will really have an opportunity to shine in this series. If they don’t, the Generals may wind up with the advantage as far as team defence.

The Generals retooled a defence that wasn’t working at the trade deadline, sending Kyle Hope to Owen Sound in a deal that brought back rearguards Matt Petgrave and Geoffrey Schemitsch. They were also able to add Winnipeg Jets prospect Julian Melchiori at the deadline when Kitchener found themselves with an extra overage player. The three newcomers bring much needed leadership and experience to the Oshawa blueline, which will come under fire against a high-powered Niagara offence. Daniel Maggio and Flyers pick Colin Suellentrop will also log big minutes, as the Oshawa defence now stacks up well against any in the league.

Advantage: Niagara

GOALTENDING

There can be little doubt as to who will see most of the action between the pipes for the IceDogs, as they are led from the goal out by, you guessed it, another Canadian World Junior, Mark Visentin. Visentin set an Ontario Hockey League record with ten shutouts this season, and is perhaps a lock for the CHL’s Goaltender Of The Year. The only question in the IceDogs net is whether backup netminder Christopher Festerini will see the ice during the series.

In Oshawa, the first half of the season was a battle in goal, as veteran Kevin Bailie was pushed by OHL rookie Daniel Altshuller for starts. Down the stretch, however, Bailie would reclaim the net and not let go, at one point playing thirteen straight contests, and is the clear starting netminder for the Generals. Should Bailie falter, it will be interesting to see how ready Head Coach Gary Agnew is to go to Altshuller.

Advantage: Niagara

PREDICTION

After watching Oshawa for many years, of course a part of me wants to believe in miracles, but it isn’t in the cards in this series. In fact, a seven games series could almost be considered a moral victory for the Generals, at a time of year when there are no moral victories. The two teams split the regular season series, with each team winning in the other’s barn, and if Oshawa can take a game in St. Catharines early in the series, they could easily push the series to six games. However, given the recent success of the IceDogs, a quick four game series isn’t out of the question if the Generals don’t show up at their best.

Fearless Prediction: Niagara IceDogs in Six

As always, I reserve the right to change my mind on a daily basis, but this is how I see it breaking down. Join me for updates throughout the series on Twitter, @N24Nicholson, or keep checking back here at In The O… The Radio Show and OHLWriters.com.