As the Ontario Hockey League Championship series gets underway, it’s important to remember there is a difference between the OHL’s Western Conference and its Eastern Conference.
The style of game is not the same. It’s hard to say why. After all, both conferences build their teams from the same places. They trade players back and forth. You shouldn’t be able to generalize.
But ask anyone who sees both conferences on a regular basis and they will back up the argument.
It is harder to win in the West. Some years the differences are more pronounced than others.
This year, the East and West are not night and day — but they might be dawn and dusk.
And the junior hockey world will likely see absolute proof as the championship series gets underway.
The Bobby Orr Trophy winners from the East are the Mississauga Steelheads. They meet the owners of the Wayne Gretzky Trophy, the Erie Otters, from the West.
The Steelheads are incredibly skilled. Currently on an eight-game winning streak, they have enough firepower to make an armoury jealous.
Mississauga has top prospect Owen Tippett, whose blend of speed and sniper ability are downright scary.
They have Londoner Spencer Watson, the league’s leading playoff goal scorer.
Teamed with the McLeod brothers, they make up one of the most dangerous lines you could assemble.
Still, even Steelheads captain Michael McLeod seems to sense something. In looking back at Mississauga’s last win over Peterborough, he also took a peek ahead.
“It was not an easy series for us, but we had a lot more time with the puck than I think we will have this series.”
Erie owned the four meetings in the regular season, winning all of them by at least three goals.
Statistically in the post-season, the Otters and the Steelheads are similar — both teams are percentage points apart. Goal differentials are nearly the same as well. Erie is a plus-31 and Mississauga is a plus-27.
You could argue that both have faced tests.
The Otters had to go to overtime of Game 7 in order to knock out the London Knights. Then they faced a tough task in taking down Owen Sound in six games.
The Steelheads have to go back a little further. They were pushed to six games by the Ottawa 67s in the opening round of their post-season run and had to dig deep to finally knock them out.
But the question that Mississauga will have to answer very quickly is whether they have been forced to dig deep enough.
The Steelheads have not had to play the style that they will see in Erie in Game 1. They have spent a great deal of time going around their opponents. They haven’t had to find a way to go through them.
They will have to figure that aspect out if they want to get chances on the Otters’ net.
Erie is incredibly skilled as well. They may not own the leading playoff goal scorer, but they have the guy who led the league in goals and points in the regular season, Alex DeBrincat, who had 65 goals in 63 games. He owns back-to-back-to-back 50-plus goal seasons.
He plays a great deal of his time with Dylan Strome and Taylor Raddysh, forming another one of the league’s lethal combinations.
Like Mississisauga with Ville Saarijarvi and Jacob Moverare, the Otters have defencemen who can generate the offensive attack and also pure offense from the blue line. Darren Raddysh led all OHL defencemen in scoring.
In goal, both have goalies who are trying to prove themselves. But all of that can still be seen as a wash.
Before the puck drops, the Steelheads should really place a call to the Niagara Ice Dogs of ’15-16. They entered last year’s championship series on a wild roll and were ready to make the London Knights their final OHL conquest. They were a very confident bunch.
Then they ran into a buzz-saw and the series was over in four straight games.
Now, last year is not necessarily this year. The Otters played in the finals in 2015 and lost to the Eastern representative.
Erie captain Dylan Strome hopes that makes a difference to the returnees on this year’s roster.
“I think we have eight or nine guys who were on that team… so hopefully we can use that experience,” he said.
That Oshawa Generals’ victory was one of just two wins by a club from the East in the past 15 seasons. Expect the Erie Otters to keep that dominance intact.