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Ontario Hockey League Western Conference first round playoff preview

For the first time since 2019, the Ontario Hockey League had made it to the playoffs.

The Guelph Storm are still the defending OHL champions going back to a team that was led by Nick Suzuki and Isaac Ratcliffe.

On the final day of the 2021-22 regular season, the Sarnia Sting edged out the Erie Otters for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Here is a preview of the Western Conference quarter-finals.

Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Windsor vs Sarnia

Big question

Is Windsor truly as good as their 13-1-1 finish to the year? (If they are – look out)

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Season series story

Windsor had the edge in the 10 games between the two clubs but the Sting made them work for it. Sarnia had a 4-5-1 record against the Spitfires and two of the Sting wins came after the trade deadline.

Windsor

Wyatt Johnston was not a household name when the year began, but he is now. The Dallas Stars first-rounder leads the OHL in scoring. Teamed with New York Rangers prospect Will Cuylle and winger Matt Maggio, they make up the scariest offensive trio in the post-season. Throw in secondary scoring from Red Wings draft pick Pasquale Zito, overager Daniel D’Amato and rookie Ethan Miedema and there is depth to Windsor’s attack as well. On defence they are a great blend of skill and grit. Louka Henault was second in league scoring by a defenceman. Andrew Perrott makes life tough on opponents. Can they get the goaltending they need for ultimate success?

Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Sarnia

Sarnia is the youngest and most inexperienced team in the OHL but they have San Jose Sharks prospect Ben Gaudreau in net and he can steal games. The Sting may not have the high-end offensive talent that the Spitfires do but they have an opportunistic quintet that all hit the 20-goal mark. Ty Voit is a catalyst. Their roster has been constructed to be very competitive next season and the playoff experience they gain this year will be big.

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What decides it

Windsor’s power play can light you up. Sarnia’s penalty killing was the worst in the league in 21-22. That’s a major advantage for the Spitfires. Windsor has the size and grit advantage as well. The Spitfires will win the series but the Sting will hang around long enough to learn what the post-season is like in preparation for next year.

Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Read more: London Knights finish the regular season with a 1-0 win over the Sarnia Sting

London vs Kitchener

Big question

When does Brett Brochu return?

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Season series story

London won the first five. Kitchener won the next four. The Knights won the final matchup and had a 6-2-2 overall record in 10 meetings.

London

Luke Evangelista was the OHL’s leading goal scorer in 2021-22. He is the Greg Maddux of goal getters. He has so many tools. Tonio Stranges and Sean McGurn typically join Evangelista on a line that is hard to handle. Cody Morgan is playing his best hockey heading onto the playoffs and Gerard Keane is an unsung difference-maker on the defensive end. Knights goaltender Brett Brochu suffered a non-contact injury at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium on March 8. Brochu left the London net with 1:55 to go in the opening period and has not been back in the crease since. Brochu is one of the top goaltenders in all of junior hockey. London had a .700 winning percentage with him in net and a .444 winning percentage without him. That being said, Knights goalie Owen Flores is coming off a 31-save shutout to end the season.

Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Kitchener

The story of the Rangers starts in goal. Pavel Cajan can handle a big workload. He actually thrives. Cajan was 3-1-1 when he made more than 40 saves this year. Kitchener has the dynamic Mike Petizian upfront with the speed of Reid Valade and the size and physicality of Navrin Mutter, Mitchell Martin and Trent Swick. They lost their leader in Arber Xhekaj when he was traded to the Hamilton Bulldogs but they carved out an 8-5-3 record after March 16 to clinch a playoff spot and avoid a dogfight on the final weekend with Sarnia and Erie for the final two playoff positions.

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What decides it

Patience on the London side. Either waiting for the return of Brochu or putting enough pucks at the Kitchener net to win. In the 10 games the teams played the Knights had at least 47 shots in half of them. It wasn’t out of the question to see the shot clock completely in London’s favour and the scoreboard close. It will take similar persistence to beat Kitchener in a best-of-seven but London can make it happen.

Flint Firebirds. Photo by Natalie Shaver/OHL Images. Natalie Shaver/OHL Images

Read more: Brand new class enshrined in Don Brankley London Knights Hall of Fame

Flint vs Owen Sound

Big question

Who wants it more?

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Season series story

This is easily the most intriguing and potentially exciting first-round series in the entire OHL. You have Flint’s quickness and cohesiveness against the youthful exuberance of the Attack. Their season series was all of four games long and was played over exactly eight days from Dec. 4 to Dec.11. Owen Sound won three of the four games.

Flint

The Firebirds are probably the team more people should be talking about as a favourite to come out of the Western Conference. They have outstanding quickness and the best penalty kill in the OHL. They have one of the best game-breakers in the post-season in Brennan Othmann. Scoring four goals in his final game to hit 50 on the year was no accident. He can raise his level in big moments. The return of Braeden Kressler late in the season makes them even better as does the experience and unflappability of Luke Cavallin in goal.

Terry Wilson / OHL Images.

Owen Sound

Their 2023-24 roster will be eerily similar to the one they have now and the Attack are already a good team. They hit rock bottom in February when they picked up just a single point in an eight-game span. Owen Sound emerged from that with the attitude of a phoenix. They went 15-3-4 the rest of the way and nearly caught the Guelph Storm for fifth place in the Western Conference. Cedrick Guindon and Servac Petrovsky finished 2-3 in rookie scoring and 2021 first-round pick Colby Barlow scored 30 goals. Add in the skill of defenceman Sam Sedley at both ends of the ice and the goaltending of Nick Chenard and the Attack will not be an easy out.

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What decides it

Picture two sprinters on the start line of a 100-metre race. Now give one of them a five-metre head start. That’s Flint and Owen Sound and the Firebirds have the head start. Flint’s key players are just a little bit further along in this one and they should outlast Owen Sound but junior hockey fans should hope the series goes as long as it can.

Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Read more: London Knights: Back in time – The Memorial Cup final

Soo Greyhounds vs Guelph

Big question

Who does a better job shutting down the big guns?

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Season series story

The goals had a tendency to pile up. The winning team scored six, seven and nine times in three of those matchups. Sault Ste. Marie rode their top-ranked power play and 13 points in six games from Rory Kerins to wins in four of the six meetings between the teams.

Sault

Kerins, Cole Mackay and Tye Kartye combined for 272 points – not quite the production of Windsor’s big three but not far off. The Greyhounds have played a similar style for years. They activate their defencemen whenever they can. You had better be ready to see four players coming through centre ice toward your zone because it happens all the time. Look at their top ten scorers – four of them are defensemen. Sault Ste Marie can score and they feel right at home in a track meet. They will need to show that they can win playoff-style games when things get tight.

Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images. Luke Durda/OHL Images

Storm

Guelph is as opportunistic a team as there is in the playoffs. Give them opportunities and they will cash in and beat you. The Storm got healthy right before the end of the regular season. Defencemen Ashton Reesor, Daniil Chayka and Michael Buchinger all missed time with injuries but all of them are back and all of them play huge roles on the blue line. So does 2021 first-round pick Cam Allen. Up front, Sasha Pastujov, Danny Zhilkin, Matthew Poitras and Matt Papais are the keys to their offence and they have Brayden Guy and Braeden Bowman who can bang and crash with the best of them.

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What decides it

The one thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet about these two teams is goaltending because it is pretty non-descript on either side. No goaltender in the series owns a save percentage above .900. As dangerous as their scorers can be this will come down to which team keeps the puck out of the net. Give the advantage to Guelph in six or seven games.

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