After a thrilling Game 7 overtime win on Tuesday, the Erie Otters moved on to join the Peterborough Petes, Mississauga Steelheads and Owen Sound Attack in the OHL’s conference finals. Thanks to two playoff rounds in which there were almost no upsets, the conference finals will see arguably the top two teams in each conference face off.
Let’s take a look at what these two highly anticipated matchups have in store.
Eastern Conference Final
#1 Peterborough Petes vs. #2 Mississauga Steelheads
The Eastern Conference Final pairs the East Division champion Petes against the Central Division champion Steelheads. Both teams buzzed through the first two rounds of the playoffs against teams without championship aspirations. The Petes swept the Niagara IceDogs and Kingston Frontenacs, while the Steelheads handled the Ottawa 67s and the Oshawa Generals. While the Steelheads dropped a pair of games to the 67s and one to the Generals, two of those losses saw the opposing goalie make 50-plus saves. Only a 4-0 stinker at home versus the 67s stands as a real blemish on their playoff resume.
These teams are intriguing for very different reasons. The Steelheads, a preseason favourite to win the conference, stumbled badly out of the gate, limping to a 15-16-8 record at the trade deadline. Despite making just a few minor adds, however, they turned their season around in the following months, closing 19-5-5 and outscoring their opponents by 35 goals in their final 29 games. The upstart Petes, meanwhile, used a perfect 10-0-0 December to vault into contention in a weak conference and cemented their chances by adding key players in top scorer Nikita Korostelev, defenceman Alex Black, and centreman Christopher Paquette.
The teams faced off four times in the regular season, with Peterborough taking three of four. However, the teams split their two post-deadline confrontations, which included an ugly 10-1 Mississauga romp. (Notably, Petes backup goaltender Scott Smith was in net for all 10 Steelheads goals.)
In a broad statistical sense, these teams are remarkably similar: the Petes scored 239 goals and allowed 221; the Steelheads, 240 and 219. But their offensive profiles differ. The Steelheads’ top three forwards — Spencer Watson, Michael McLeod and Owen Tippett — are arguably better than anyone on the Petes’ front-end.
The Petes compensate by getting slightly more offense from a capable blue line that includes Matthew Timms (injured, questionable for the series) and overager Kyle Jenkins, but their real advantage is on the defensive end, specifically goaltender Dylan Wells. While the Steelheads’ Matthew Mancina (a former Pete) has been capable, and the team has to be thrilled with the progress of rookie Jacob Ingham, neither is in Wells’ class.
I expect the steady Petes to put their fair share of goals in Mississauga’s net, but the series outcome really hinges on how well Wells and the Petes’ defencemen are able to contain the Steelheads’ top guns — and whether Mississauga’s depth guys can step up in the event they do. I’ll take the Petes in 7, but could easily see the series going the other way.
Western Conference Final
#1 Erie Otters vs. #3 Owen Sound Attack
In the Western Conference Final, the league’s top two teams by both points and goal differential face off. After blowing an overmatched Sarnia Sting team out of the playoffs in four games, the Otters took seven games to shake all-world goalie Tyler Parsons and the Knights, outshooting London 289-181 in the series.
Meanwhile, the Owen Sound Attack dismantled the Kitchener Rangers in five games in the first round before rallying from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in round two. While both teams have faced adversity, they each now have a significant series win to their credit and can look to add to that resume by ousting another championship contender.
This is Erie’s fourth straight trip to the Western Conference Final. The Otters’ recent success has been well-documented. Four straight 50-win seasons (a CHL record) by teams anchored by a host of top-flite offensive talents including Connor McDavid and, this season, 65-goal man Alex DeBrincat. However, the Otters have come up short in three successive seasons. Beating the Attack would leave the Otters with an excellent chance of finally shaking that playoff monkey off their backs and winning their first championship since 2002.
The upstart Attack, whom few had predicted to contend this season, have become a popular team to root for in the wider OHL community, and will be the sentimental favourite to win this series. Having closed the season on a torrid 33-2-3 run, they remain the OHL’s hottest team.
The division rivals faced each other six times in the regular season, with Erie taking four of the contests. However, five of those games came before the Attack’s incredible season-ending run. Owen Sound won the teams’ only post-December meeting, 4-2 at home in February.
Erie truly has all the trappings of a championship team — multiple World Junior Tournament stars; arguably the league’s most potent line in DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Taylor Raddysh; and impressive depth both up front and on the blue line. But while Owen Sound lacks Erie’s big names, they also boast considerable front-end talent. I would have liked to see them make one more second-line add at the deadline, but there’s no question there’s enough depth here to win a championship.
The Attack’s big advantage is in goal, where Michael McNiven has been among the league’s best goaltenders. He’ll get a serious test from DeBrincat and Erie’s other big guns, but coupled with Owen Sound’s stingy team defence, he’s certainly capable of shutting down the Otters.
Erie will counter with the tandem of Troy Timpano, who struggled in round two, and capable backup Joseph Murdaca. While you don’t have to squint to see Timpano rebounding or Murdaca taking the starter’s job and running with it, they’ll be in tough against the Attack forwards.
Much like the East final, I can see this series going either way — but I’m not convinced that will make for a tight series. The OHL has seen its fair share of superteam collisions result in lopsided results (Barrie vs. Windsor in 2010, Guelph vs. Erie in 2014, and Erie vs. London in 2016 are all examples), and it wouldn’t surprise me to see either team find a new gear, get a few bounces, and wrap the series up quickly. Nevertheless, I’ll go with the safe bet and predict a long series, with Owen Sound prevailing in 7.