January 12, 2018 3:46 pm

OHL preview number two: The road to the playoffs

Windsor Spitfires centre Aaron Luchuk (91) celebrates his goal as Erie Otters goalie Troy Timpano (33) looks on during third period Memorial Cup final hockey action in Windsor, Ont., on Sunday, May 28, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

CP Images / Adrian Wyld

The Ontario Hockey League always needs two season previews.

One at the beginning of the year and then one immediately following the trade deadline.

Early season favourites Owen Sound and Mississauga have not hit the heights they were expected to, while Sault Ste. Marie has been even better than projected, and they were supposed to be very good.

Now that all pieces have settled, let’s look at the final stretch to the 2018 post-season.

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Western Conference

Soo Greyhounds – They put together the third-longest winning streak in league history at 23 games and sat with a record of 34-3-2-1 on trade deadline day. How do you improve upon that? The Greyhounds found a way. They nabbed both Taylor Raddysh and Jordan Sambrook from the Erie Otters. Both players own the one thing Sault Ste. Marie was lacking: an OHL Championship ring. Raddysh had two goals in his Greyhounds debut. The best team in the league was able to improve and will remain the favourite until someone proves otherwise.

Sarnia – Sarnia posted the second-longest winning streak of the 2017-18 OHL season after winning 14-straight. After going 2-6 with Jordan Kyrou and Adam Ruzicka away at World Juniors, the Sting stacked the cupboard with three big names to help add more offense. They acquired offensive defenceman, Cam Dineen from North Bay, Michael Pezzetta from Sudbury and Jonathan Ang from Peterborough. All three scored in their Sting debut. Sarnia is as big a contender as they have ever been and they managed to add without sacrificing the future. They are a true threat this season and beyond.

Kitchener – The Rangers took a quiet road into the conversation of contenders. When they picked up Logan Stanley in the summer, it wasn’t thought to be for a run at a championship, but that’s where they sit. Stanley is one of the best defenceman in junior hockey and they have a solid top four and were able to sign draft pick, Michael Vukojevic as depth. Up front, Kitchener might have the most size this side of North Bay. Their question mark will come in goal. Despite being an overager, Mario Culina is unproven.

London and Windsor – Put the Knights and Spitfires together. No teams moved veteran talent for young talent and draft picks to the degree that this pair of old rivals did. The Knights were able to bring in Nathan Dunkley, Sergey Popov and Connor McMichael up front and still have one of the best goals-against totals since the arrival of Joseph Raaymakers. London was giving up four goals per game before that trade and 2.67 since. Windsor acquired youngsters Grayson Ladd, Cody Morgan and re-stocked some draft picks. The Knights and Spitfires will also share something else when the playoffs begin: With their goaltending, coaching and styles of play, no one will want to face them in round one or beyond.

Saginaw – Until they picked up Reilly Webb from Hamilton, the only way the Spirit showed up at or before the trade deadline was when teams traded draft picks that once belonged to Saginaw. The Spirit have been a pleasant surprise. Troy Smith has done an excellent job behind the bench and they basically stayed the course on what is looking more and more like a steady build to success. They will most likely fall victim to a top-end team in a quick first round series, but the future looks bright.

Guelph – In their first season following the return of George Burnett, the Storm are continuing to give their young players ice time and experience. The pressure to win is not there yet, but next year it will be.

Owen Sound – If the Montreal Canadiens had returned Michael McNiven for an overage season, the Attack would be at the top of this list and the question would be more about whether they could knock off the Greyhounds for the second year in a row. Instead, Owen Sound has spent the season searching for goaltending and settling toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings. They never did find the experienced number one goalie they were looking for and will likely not find the success everyone had predicted for them either.

Erie – After four straight 50 win seasons, it was time for the Otters to step back and build for the future and that is what they have done. They got solid returns in their deals and shouldn’t be down for long.

Flint – After trading for Nic Mattinen at the start of the season, the Firebirds traded him away at the deadline for another good young player. They have quite a few players who fit that description on their roster and will be looking for better results than they have had with those players as early as next season.

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Eastern Conference

Hamilton – They are all in. Hamilton has scoring, defence and dangerous special teams. From the end of November to the deadline, they made six deals and despite popular opinion, do still own second round picks. They have two this year and then don’t have another second rounder until 2027. They want to win. All they seem to lack is a proven goaltender, but very few players can outwork Kaden Fulcher.

Kingston – The Frontenacs are reportedly out to do two things. The first is get their fan base excited. The second is to try to win a championship. Mission number one will be accomplished. If mission number two is not, they may find a quick return to apathy from their fans. Kingston has sacrificed for now. They have players like Cliff Pu, Max Jones, Sean Day and Gabe Vilardi who know how to win. However, they are not at the top of the list among teams expected to do that.

Barrie – The Colts were quite quiet at the deadline, adding Dmitry Sokolov from Sudbury for Alexei Lipanov, but they could afford to be. Barrie finished in last place last season. They are ahead of schedule.

Mississauga – The Steelheads made a trade with Ottawa on New Year’s Day that left people scratching their heads. They appeared to trade away talent for draft picks. Then they reeled off three straight victories before the trade deadline and Owen Tippett was named OHL Player of the Week. They are still dangerous.

Niagara – The Ice Dogs have a decent record and a very good goalie in Stephen Dhillon. They added at the deadline, but do not have enough to run with the bigger dogs.

Oshawa – At the end of last season, the Generals were bidding to host the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament. Now they seem stuck in limbo. Or reverse.

North Bay – Their defensive style and their size are always tough to deal with in the post-season. This year will be no different.

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Peterborough – The Petes have a new head coach in Andrew Vernon and are looking for new results. Those won’t come before next year or beyond.

Ottawa – They added. They subtracted. The hope is that math yields better results than what they have had so far this year.

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