Rangers to face Greyhounds, Bulldogs vs Frontenacs in OHL Conference Championships

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LONDON, ON - MARCH 4: Morgan Frost #16 of the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds skates against the London Knights during an OHL game at Budweiser Gardens on March 4, 2016 in London, Ontario, Canada. The Knights defeated the Greyhounds 6-4. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

After a first round where there were no surprises, the top eight squared off in round two of the OHL playoffs.

The second round was just as entertaining. The Hamilton Bulldogs had a tight five-game series with the Niagara IceDogs, while the Kingston Frontenacs shut down the Barrie Colts’ high-powered trio. The Kitchener Rangers and Sarnia Sting squared off in a back-and-forth series, while the Owen Sound Attack proved the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds can be beaten.

OHL Conference Championships

With the final four set, the battles for the championship trophies will begin. The Greyhounds and Rangers square off for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy. In the East, the Bulldogs and Frontenacs battle it out for the Bobby Orr Trophy.

Hamilton Bulldogs vs Kingston Frontenacs

Tale of the Tape

Bulldogs: 1stin Eastern Conference; 43-18-4-3, 93 points; 252 goals-for, 207 goals-against

Frontenacs: 3rdin Eastern Conference; 36-23-6-3, 81 points; 243 goals-for, 202 goals-against

How They Got Here

The Bulldogs split the first two games against Ottawa but cruised through the next three. After getting out of round one in five games, they were face-to-face with the IceDogs. The first three games went to overtime, but Hamilton rode a 2-1 series lead to another five-game win. After an early scare in Game 1 against North Bay, Kingston won four-straight to close out round one. It was more of the same in round two, as they dropped the first two games against Barrie. The Frontenacs rebounded once again, however, moving on in six games.

Up Front

Robert Thomas and Ryan Moore have come as advertised. The in-season imports are co-leaders in scoring for Hamilton, racking up 15 points apiece. They’re followed by three other players with 10+ points. Brandon Saigeon is one of them and leads the team with eight goals. Nicholas Caamano has been a star with three game-winners in eight victories. Matthew Strome suffered a stinger late in the series against Niagara, but played a pivotal role in Game 5. The extra rest has likely done him some good.

Gabe Vilardi is a machine. The Los Angeles Kings prospect is second in playoff scoring, one point behind Kitchener’s Logan Brown. It’s tough to imagine him coming back for a fourth season. Linus Nyman’s reputation as a playoff performer is only getting stronger. In his second season out of Finland, he has 16 points in 11 playoff games, and 27 in 22 career post-season games. If it isn’t enough to bring up names like Jason Robertson and Cliff Pu, there’s one more key piece that’s healthy. Max Jones. Jones was missing during the stretch run and first round with a finger injury. After two quiet games, Jones had points in back-to-back games to finish off Barrie. He could be a difference maker.

On Defence

The Bulldogs’ defence won’t wow you with points, but they’re deep and they get the job done. Veterans Riley Stillman and Justin Lemcke are a league-best +12 and +11 respectively. Ben Gleason and Nicolas Mattinen continue to soak up key minutes on the second pairing. Connor Walters and Jack Hanley round out a defence that has dressed just six players all playoffs. Hamilton has allowed an OHL-best 26 goals of any team with 10+ games played.

Sean Day provides a little more flash to Kingston’s defence, but they’re solid overall as well. Day teams up with Eemeli Rasanen, while Jakob Brahaney and Jacob Paquette form another reliable pair. Liam Murray will be M.I.A until Game 5, thanks to suspension, putting pressure on the Fronts. With deep forward groups, the depth on either side will be tested. It could be a true test of who blinks first.

Between the Pipes

Jeremy Helvig had some big playoff performances to his name coming into 2018. He also had a couple of clunkers for Kingston. Kaden Fulcher had one post-season appearance in the books before leading the OHL in playoff goals-against average (2.51) this year. Now both are shining. Helvig is 8-2-1 for the Frontenacs with a 2.61 GAA and a 0.921 SV%, while Fulcher is 8-1-1. Both offences have plenty of firepower but Helvig withstood the harder road in round two against Barrie. Both will be facing plenty of rubber now though.

In the End

Both teams scoured the OHL for experienced pieces. Both are well-armed for this fight. Ultimately, Kingston may carry the edge based on experience, with five OHL or Memorial Cup Championship rings on their roster. The Fronts win, but the Bulldogs make them earn it. Frontenacs in six.

 

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs Kitchener Rangers

Tale of the Tape

Greyhounds: 1st in Western Conference; 55-7-3-3, 116 points; 316 goals-for, 186 goals-against

Rangers: 2nd in Western Conference; 43-21-3-1, 90 points; 246 goals-for, 218 goals-against

How They Got Here

The Greyhounds punched their way out of the first round in four games, quickly dispatching the Saginaw Spirit. They had significantly more trouble in round two. It took seven games to get through the Owen Sound Attack. The boys from the Bayshore shut them down in Games 1 (4-1), 3 (6-2), and 6 (7-1). They avoided disaster in Game 7 with a 9-7 win, but there’s plenty the Rangers can study.

Although they dropped Games 3 and 4, the Rangers didn’t have too much trouble in round one with the Guelph Storm. In round two they met up with a loaded Sting team and overcame a sluggish Game 3 in Sarnia. The Rangers bailed themselves out with the overtime winner at home in Game 5 and carried that momentum into the clinching Game 6.

Up Front

There are no questions surrounding the Soo’s ability to score. They scored an OHL-best 317 goals in the regular season, following it up with 52 through two rounds. Boris Katchouk is riding a four-game point streak into the West Final with a three-point game and a four-point game during that stretch. Meanwhile, Taylor Raddysh, Morgan Frost, Tim Gettinger and Barrett Hayton all continue to produce. For example, Frost has been held scoreless just one game all playoffs. They’re a tough team to outscore, but Owen Sound did it three times, holding them to just four goals in three losses.

Kitchener had a ton of interesting and dynamic pieces before loading up, and added the perfect compliments to their core. Logan Brown and Kole Sherwood came as advertised from Windsor and Flint, with Brown sitting first in playoff points league-wide. Adam Mascherin is one of the best finishers in the league. This year, though, he has more assists than the previous three post-seasons combined. Mix in Givani Smith, who has done a fairly good job in picking his spots, and Riley Damiani who has become a key chess piece among the forwards, and the Rangers have weapons.

On Defence

The depth of the Soo blueline was on display down the stretch. Missing Conor Timmins for most of their games post-trade deadline, draft-eligible Rasmus Sandin continued to elevate his game. Insulated by point-producer Mac Hollowell,former Otter Jordan Sambrook, OHL veteran Noah Carroll, and Anthony Demelo this is the deepest blueline in the league. Timmins was elite during the World Junior Championship, and he’ll be required to lead by example alongside Sambrook. Owen Sound’s scorers gave them trouble in the second round, so this becomes an exercise in self-scouting. If they can figure out where they were exploited and what went wrong, they can frustrate Kitchener. If not, they’ll be the frustrated ones.

This may be the area where Kitchener has surprised the most. After an injury-shortened season, they were expecting to get Connor Hall back for the final few weeks. They did, but he was lost to shoulder surgery before the regular season was even over. Logan Stanley has been playing like a number one defenceman and has to have the Winnipeg Jets excited about his growth. Austin McEneny (out for Game 1) has been steady and Giovanni Vallati has shown flashes in his draft year. I hesitantly list Joseph Garreffa here, as the Swiss army knife has been effective as both a forward and a defenceman. He’s been moved around at will by head coach Jay McKee. But the biggest emergence has been seen in Jack York and Michael Vukojevic. If it weren’t for them, who knows if the Rangers would have made it this far. Keep a close eye on the two of them in the Western Conference Final.

Between the Pipes

Mario Culina has been a revelation for Kitchener. After coming over from the Wolves at the Trade Deadline he has been excellent during the playoffs. He’s settled into the starting role, and outside of six and seven-goal outbursts from Guelph in round one, he’s kept opponents to four goals or less. Matthew Villalta had an excellent regular season, but it’s been a bumpy ride come playoff time. He was fine in the first round, but maybe we were seeing the impact of a long season rearing its head against Owen Sound. He was great in Games 4 and 5, but average throughout the rest of the second round. The pressure will be intense surrounding Villalta in the Western Conference Championship.

In the End

This is tough to call. A month ago the ‘Hounds were world beaters. Then the Attack pushed them to the brink. They’re built for this and have the experience, but the Rangers are too. They’ve got four members of Windsor’s Memorial Cup championship team dotting their roster. If Matthew Villalta can return to regular season form it’ll be a big boost. If these 60 total games are getting to him though, it could be an upset special. Greyhounds in seven.

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