Traditionalists say that if you want to experience the purest form of hockey, just watch any of the three junior leagues in Canada. The best young players in North America battle it out for a chance to achieve their lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. Fans can attend games without breaking the bank, and there’s never a shortage of drama. This season was no different, as each league featured dozens of storylines worth following. Out in the prairies, future first-overall pick Connor Bedard led his Regina Pats to another playoff spot after posting what may have been the best season in the history of modern junior hockey. In the Québec Major Junior Hockey League, the board of directors introduced sweeping changes, which will eliminate fighting from the league altogether.
Nothing so interesting has occurred in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). The same big players ended up at the top of the standings. While that doesn’t sound particularly interesting, it will make for some great playoff matchups, as rivals old and new face off in their quests for the Memorial Cup. So, how did they get here?
Traditional Dominance Continues
In the OHL’s Western Conference, the Windsor Spitfires and London Knights finished first and second, respectively. Those two teams had kicked for first and second in the conference each of the past two seasons. Matthew Maggio led all skaters with 54 goals and 111 points – the second straight season a Spitfires player collected the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the league’s top scorer. They snuck past the Sarnia Sting to claim their second straight division title in a 6-3 victory as forward Alex Christopoulos netted a hat trick. The Spitfires were ignited by Seattle Kraken prospect and 2023 World Junior gold medalist Shane Wright, whom they acquired in a trade from the Kingston Frontenacs in January. Wright suited up for 20 games with the Spits and recorded 15 goals and 22 assists, bolstering an already deep and dangerous roster.
The Knights, meanwhile, finished only two points below the Spits in what amounted to a single head-to-head loss last Friday. Their season ended with the 900th career victory for head coach Dale Hunter, adding to his 20-year success story that began in 2001-02. The Knights were in a slight slump down the stretch, which ultimately cost them first place in the conference, but back-to-back wins last weekend entrenched them firmly in second.
The Spitfires face the Kitchener Rangers in the first round of the playoffs beginning March 30, while the Knights take on the Owen Sound Attack.
Ottawa 67’s Finish With League’s Best Record, North Bay Battalion End on Win Streak
They notched their 51st win in dominant fashion, 5-1 over the Barrie Colts. Their goalie tandem, Max Donoso and Collin MacKenzie, were recently awarded the Dave Pinkney Trophy as the goaltenders who allowed the fewest goals in the league during the regular season. They clinched the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as the league’s best regular season team with two weeks remaining. Suffice it to say, the Ottawa 67’s are a different breed. The “Barber Poles” reached 50 wins for the third time in four seasons and finished the regular season with an impressive 107 points in 68 games, good for a .787 winning percentage and an eight-point cushion over the second-place North Bay Battalion.
They ended the season on a five-game win streak, which included an 8-3 drubbing of the Oshawa Generals, their first-round opponent. 67’s sophomore Brady Stonehouse, who finished fifth in scoring with 37 goals and 20 assists, will be a particularly interesting player to watch as the postseason begins. “Sophomore” may not even technically be accurate, as his true rookie season was in 2020-21, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’ll look to further impress when the 67’s get their playoff campaign started on March 30.
Related: Spitfires Acquire Frontenacs’ Captain Wright in OHL Blockbuster
Despite finishing nearly 10 points off the 67’s, the North Bay Battalion finished the season as the hottest team in the OHL and are riding an 11-game win streak into their first-round series against the Mississauga Steelheads on March 31. The Troops finished as the second-best defensive team in the OHL, and their netminder, Dom DiVincentiis was the league leader in both save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) with a .919 and a 2.33 rating, respectively. Just as the 67’s finished first in the league again this year, the Battalion finished second in the Eastern Conference in back-to-back seasons.
OHL Postseason Can Produce Magical Moments
Even though this season has seen the same teams lead the way again, the “O” is no stranger to an upset or a Cinderella story. In the first round of the 2021-22 playoffs, the Knights (2) faced off with the Rangers (7) in a back-and-forth seven-game slugfest. In what was deemed by some as the year of the upset (from ‘Is This The Year of the Upset in the OHL Playoffs?,’ The Record, 21/04/2022), the Rangers knocked off the Knights with a dramatic overtime victory in the deciding contest.
The Rangers lost the regular season series 6-4 because many argued that the Knights’ top line of Sean McGurn, Antonio Stranges, and Luke Evangelista was too much to handle. However, led by their captain Francesco Pinelli and overage player Mike Petizian, were able to come away with a dramatic victory.
Although it seems like the OHL continues to be dominated by the same teams year in and year out, the playoffs offer the opportunity for the status quo to be flipped once again.