The Ontario Hockey League playoffs are set to begin, and undoubtedly it’ll lead to excitement, nervousness, and some shock and awe too. The winner of the J. Ross Robertson Cup will be off to challenge for the Memorial Cup in Shawinigan and hopefully bring the OHL back to dominance in the Canadian Hockey League.
In preparation for the first round, let’s take a look at a storyline from each series and two extras for good measure (or, you know, a nice round 10).
1. The health of Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk will be the story of the first round for the Sarnia Sting against the Saginaw Spirit. Both will be playing, but one has to wonder how close to game-shape they are. Galchenyuk missed most of the regular season rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, but also suffered a shoulder injury in one of the team’s final games while Yakupov suffered an ‘upper body injury’ at the hands of Mike Halmo. If those two can’t play up to par, one player they’ll need more from is Tyler Brown. The overage forward had just two goals in 30 games with Sarnia, both coming in the last game of the regular season.
2. The Oshawa Generals need to regain some momentum heading into their series with the Niagara IceDogs. Oshawa had won five of six before going on a three-game slide to close out the season, and we all know how important positive thinking and results are heading into the playoffs. They’ll need their top players to lead by example and that starts with Boone Jenner. He had points in six of the team’s last seven games (4G/5A) but he’ll need to be at his bang-and-crash best, knocking Niagara’s top players off of their game if Oshawa wants to move on.
3. With Tanner Pearson out, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors have to worry about one fewer dangerous Barrie Colts forward. There still is Colin Behenna, Ivan Telegin, Daniel Erlich, and Mark Scheifele to deal with though, so people should probably stop assuming the series is over before it begins. This one comes down to the Colts’ big guns going toe-to-toe with the Majors defense led by the now-healthy Stuart Percy and the suddenly surging Brandon Maxwell.
4. How tough is this London Knights/Windsor Spitfires going to be? Yes the Spits sold off pieces at the deadline with dreams of a top pick, but there’s talent there with a hard-nosed attitude. London’s top scorers like Greg McKegg, Vladislav Namestnikov, Seth Griffith slumped down the stretch, and if they aren’t careful they could get out-worked by the Spits and watch a shocker play out. Talent is talent but the playoffs come down to hard work, and the question is can the Knights win if they get outworked be Windsor?
5. People are ready to hand the Plymouth Whalers the Western Conference title, but that’s why you play the games. The Guelph Storm obviously have no intentions of rolling over, but of course going up against such a big, tough, veteran team will make things difficult. The Storm were the last team to win big against the Whalers during the regular season (9-1) and they scored at last four goals in each matchup with the Whalers, so they’ve figured something out. It may very well be their skating and puck movement that could by the Whalers’ kryptonite. If Guelph keeps Plymouth on the move in the series and stays out of the trouble areas where they can get beat up, they could make it work.
6. Malcolm Subban has to be at his best if the Belleville Bulls hope to knock off the Ottawa 67s. Ottawa entered the playoffs last year with plenty of injury problems and met an early exit, but they’re a team ready to prove a point and win a championship. If Subban can outperform Petr Mrazek though, he might be able to buy enough time for his offense to get into gear. If Ottawa keeps Subban on the move and finds ways to throw him off of his game, it’ll be a short series.
7. It’s a shock that the most-talked about storyline in this series has already happened with Mike Halmo being handed his 10-game (8 playoff game) suspension. Halmo could have been the difference maker between the Kitchener Rangers and Owen Sound Attack, but thanks to a reputation-based suspension he’s now a non-factor. The Rangers have some big bodies they can use to lean on Owen Sound like Andrew Crescenzi (if healthy) and Tyler Randell, but you have to wonder if they can grind it out long-term with Owen Sound. Even without Halmo, the Attack can wear down an opponent and a long series may not only benefit them, but if it goes seven games it means they only miss Captain Halmo for one game in the second round. Kitchener would be best served to get this one over quickly.
8. The Sudbury Wolves got huge performances out of Michael Sgarbossa and Josh Leivo last year, and they’ll be hoping to get them again. The trick for Sudbury will be figuring out how to get their offensive game going in a series against one of the stingiest teams in the league in the Brampton Battalion. The kicker is that Sam Carrick can not only shut you down, but victimize you too. If the Battalion forwards can limit Sudbury’s second chances and power play chances and they get stout goaltending, Brampton could make their way into the second round.
9. Goaltending wins in the playoffs, and while there are teams out there with John Gibsons, Michael Housers, and Scott Wedgewoods, there are teams out there with question marks. If the Jake Paterson of the last two months shows up, then Saginaw could be bound for the second round, otherwise Jack Kuzmyk might be lighting things up. Amongst other things the Generals have yet to really get consistent goaltending this year, but if they get that from Kevin Bailie it could at least put a scare into the IceDogs. And of course the million dollar question: If something happens to Michael Houser, what happens to the London Knights?
10. And we leave you with a question: What exactly is considered an upset these days? The 4 vs 5 matchup is typically separated by a few points, and the 3 vs 6 matchup can be a little misleading too if you just look at seedings. So are the true upsets just between a 1vs 8 or 2 vs 7? Who knows if we’ll even have to deal with this question this year, but chances are we’ll see one or two at least come close to a stunning result.
Bryan Thiel is a freelance writer for 'In the O' and follows Toronto Maple Leafs CHL prospects for Leafs Nation Network. He also does feature work for OHL television broadcasts. You can follow Bryan on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.