CHL Playoff Preview, Part 4
by Bob Davis(NHL)
Posted on March 31, 2006, 9:25 PM
NOTE: This column was originally posted in the RCC on Tuesday, March 28th.
The battle for the 2006 Memorial Cup has begun in Canada. Three junior hockey leagues each run through a gruelling, 70+ game season; then host a four-round playoff system to crown 3 league champions. The respective league champions then travel out to a designated city to compete against the host team to crown the annual national junior champion. This year, the champions from the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will compete against Moncton in the New Brunswick city for the Memorial Cup.
The Memorial Cup is the biggest stage for these young prospects to showcase their talents to potential NHL teams. Some of these players will become household names in the NHL; and a select few will win the Stanley Cup. Over the next few days, I will introduce you to some of the players in each of the three leagues who are hoping to jumpstart their NHL careers by leading their teams to the Memorial Cup Final. I’ll also put my psychic abilities to the test and put my predictions out for each of the first round series.
Part 1: The WHL Eastern Conference.
Part 2: The WHL Western Conference.
Part 3: The OHL Eastern Conference.
OHL Western Conference.
Series A: London Knights vs. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The defending Memorial Cup champions open their quest to repeat against Sault Ste. Marie. London dominated the OHL last season, steamrolling right through the competition to win the championship. In fact, the Knights only lost 9 games through the entire season, including playoffs and the Memorial Cup. This time around, the road was a little bumpier for the Knights, who finished with 15 losses on the year. Meanwhile, the Greyhounds finished 8th overall, qualifying for the post season with 29 wins and 66 points on the season.
Leading the way for the Greyhounds is starting goaltender Kyle Gajewski. The 19 year old Greyhound was responsible for all 29 wins that Sault Ste. Marie chalked up this season. Gajewski is ranked 10th on the International Scouting Service’s list of top undrafted 19-year-olds. Gajewski posted impressive numbers in 64 games for the Hounds, including 3 shutouts, a 2.84 goals against average and a .904 save percentage. Unfortunately for Gajewski, those numbers are bound to go up against the high-octane offence of the Knights.
The defending Memorial Cup champions put up impressive numbers on offence this season, slamming home an unbelievable 304 goals in 68 games. The Knights sported 4 players on offence who would lead most teams in scoring; including 3 who surpassed the 100 point mark. The leader among that trio is Rob Shremp. The 19-year-old centre, drafted 25th overall in 2005 by Edmonton, posted 57 goals and 145 points in just 57 games with the Knights this season.
Right Winger David Bolland, acquired by Chicago in the 2004 draft, finished second in scoring with an equally impressive 57 goals and 130 points in just 59 games. Third place on the team went to the left winger on the line, 20 year old Dylan Hunter. The Buffalo prospect potted 32 goals and 117 points in 62 games with the Knights. As if that wasn’t enough, a rookie rounded off the top 4 in scoring for the Knights with a mere 78 point season. 18-year-old Sergei Kostitsyn, the younger brother of Habs forward Andrei, potted 26 goals and 52 assists in just 63 games. The younger Kostitsyn is slated to join his brother with Les Habitents at some point; but Sergei will probably choose to stay with the Knights for at least 1 more year.
In game 1 of the series, Kostitsyn had a 5 point night to lead the Knights to a 6-1 win. Rob Shremp and Dylan Hunter took a turn in the spotlight in Game 2; both forwards had 3 points as the Knights took the game 6-3. Hunter and Bolland had 3 point nights, and Kostitsyn scored the winner in overtime and tacked on 3 assists as London took a 3 games to nil lead with a 6-5 win. Game 4 is slated for Tuesday night in Sault Ste. Marie; if you live in that area, you might want to go see this one. It will be the last time you can see the Hounds this year.
PREDICTION: London dominates Sault Ste. Marie 4 games to nil.
Series B: Plymouth Whalers vs. Windsor Spitfires.
The Whalers took second place overall by hanging on to the West Division title. With 75 points, the Whalers finished just 1 point ahead of Saginaw; and just 4 points ahead of their opponent, the Spitfires. Plymouth notched 35 wins on the season, while Windsor put 32 games into the win column.
Plymouth relied on a lot of vigilante justice this season, thanks to their leading scorer, John Vigilante. The 20 year old left winger potted 24 goals and 77 points for the Whalers in just 55 games. The 6’, 200lb Vigilante was picked up by Nashville as an undrafted free agent signee; the Dearborn, MI native is hoping to make an impact on the Predators in the near future.
While the Whalers were taking a course in vigilantism, the Spitfires had the luck of the Irish on their side. Cal O’Reilly, taken in the 5th round of the 2005 draft by Nashville, racked up 81 assists and 99 points in 68 games with the Spitfires. The 5’11, 179lb centre displayed a very disciplined style of hockey, taking less time in the penalty box than most of us take for coffee breaks. The 19-year-old O’Reilly sat down for just 4 minor penalties throughout the year; and has yet to take any time in the box in the first 2 games of this series.
Game 1 of this series saw Vigilante justice reign supreme, as John potted a goal and an assist to lead the Whalers to a 7-4 victory. In game 2, O’Reilly was held in check as Plymouth skated away with a 4-2 victory and a 2-nil lead in the series. The O’Reilly Factor will become a major part of this series when game 3 begins on Tuesday night. Will it be enough? Not likely.
PREDICTION: Plymouth over Windsor 4 games to 3.
Series C: Kitchener Rangers vs. Owen Sound Attack.
Division rivals collide as the #3 ranked Rangers take on the #6 Attack. Kitchener finished just 6 points behind London in the Midwest Division, however the Rangers were ranked 3rd because they were not the divisional champions. Meanwhile, the Attack finished 3 games above .500 for the year, good for 71 points. The Attack gave up the exact same number of goals as it scored on the season.
The player leading the attack for Owen Sound is also the player who answers a trivia question from the 2005 draft. Bobby Ryan was the second pick overall in the 05 draft, the consolation prize for Anaheim in the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes. The Mighty Ducks are thrilled with their second pick, who racked up 64 assists and 95 points in just 59 games for the Attack. The 221lb right winger from Collingswood, New Jersey potted 12 power play goals during the regular season.
The Detroit Red Wings are keeping a close eye on this series for one important reason. Their second choice in the 2004 Entry Draft was Kitchener Rangers centre Evan McGrath. The 6’ 20-year-old leading scorer for the Rangers potted 37 goals and 114 points in 67 games this season. McGrath was expected to be picked in the top 10 in the 2004 draft; but when his name was not mentioned on day 1 of the 2 day event, he skipped the second session and used the time for an extra workout.
McGrath could’ve used that extra workout prior to game 1, as Ryan assisted on the game winner in a 3-2 Owen Sound victory. Attack goaltender Michael Ouzas stopped 34 of 36 shots faced in game 2 as the Attack took a 2-0 series lead with a second straight 3-2 victory. Earlier tonight, McGrath assisted on the game winner in double overtime as Kitchener took game 3 by a 4-3 score. Bobby Ryan has his team looking ahead to the second round; Kitchener is going to need a massive effort from McGrath and more superb goaltending from Ouzas to have a shot at round 2.
PREDICTION: Owen Sound upsets Kitchener 4 games to 3.
Series D: Guelph Storm vs. Saginaw Spirit.
The fourth ranked Storm completed a very respectable 2005-06 season with 40 wins and 84 points, good for 3rd place in a strong Midwest division. Their opponents from Saginaw dropped 5 of their last 10 games to round out the season. The Spirit wound up in second place in the West Division, with 36 wins for 74 points. Saginaw allowed an average of 3.6 goals per game through the season.
In a division where offence was paramount, Guelph’s number one strength is in the net. Goaltender Ryan MacDonald spearheaded the Storm charge this season, recording 35 wins and 6 shutouts in 57 games in the net. The 20-year-old MacDonald posted a goals against average of 2.57 while recording a .907 save percentage. The Storm will need MacDonald to post playoff numbers similar to those that he put up for London in 2003-04, when he won 6 out of 9 games and posted a GAA of 2.27.
The Spirit are hoping that sophomore centre Ryan McDonough will have MacDonald’s number. The 17-year-old McDonough led the Spirit with 39 goals and 88 points in 68 games this season. The 5’9, 183lb centre posted 17 goals on the power play; and sported an incredible +25 rating through the season. The Toronto native will be eligible for the 2007 entry draft, and with another season like the one he just had, he will be one of the top picks.
In game 1 of this series, Guelph rode 2 second period power play goals to a 3-2 win. Earlier tonight, MacDonald stopped 40 of 41 shots to lead the Storm to a 4-1 victory and a 2-0 series lead. In 2 games, MacDonald has stopped 64 of 67 shots faced. The Spirit are not going to roll over that easily; but with the way MacDonald is playing, winning 4 out of the next 5 will be a nearly impossible task.
PREDICTION: Guelph wins 4 games to 2.
OHL PREDICTIONS RECAP:
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Peterborough over Ottawa 4-2
Brampton over Belleville 4-3
Barrie over Toronto 4-1
Sudbury over Kingston 4-2
WESTERN CONFERENCE: London over Sault Ste. Marie 4-0
Plymouth over Windsor 4-3
Owen Sound over Kitchener 4-3
Guelph over Saginaw 4-2.
In Parts 5 and 6, the QMJHL playoffs will go under the spotlight. Sidney Crosby led his Rimouski Oceanic to the Memorial Cup final in 2005, where the Quebec champions were dominated from start to finish by London. With Crosby now in the NHL, how did the Oceanic fare?
In Part 7, I’ll take a look past round 1 at which teams are likely to contend for the Memorial Cup in Moncton. I’ll also wrap up by looking at some of the talents on non-playoff teams that could make a major impact in the NHL in the not-too-distant future.