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Monday, 13 April 2015

The Road to the Memorial Cup Continues
CHL Leagues enter Round 2 of the playoffs

The Memorial Cup in Quebec City is drawing closer.  In just over a month's time we will know our 4 competing teams.  Of course we already know the host Remparts will be there, but who will be joining them?

As the WHL playoffs got under way, #TwineTime made predictions on how each series would play out.  For a memory refresher, visit HERE

Now, I will admit it was a small slight on my behalf to only focus on the WHL.  Sure, I am a huge WHL fan and know the league the best but there are some other outstanding playoff series going on across the country.  For my Road to the Memorial Cup Round 2 blog, I figured I would open up my picks to all 3 leagues and make predictions on who will advance to the #FinalFour.

WHL

The first round of the playoffs produced little in terms of upsets....and really only minor intrigue to be honest.  The winners were, for the most part, predictable and the games were not as exciting as many had hoped.  Sure a few series went the distance and of course there were a few great games played but overall it was a lackluster opening round.

For my #TwineTime picks, I accurately nailed 7 of the 8 opening round series.  Oh Portland, I should have known better to go against you.  But I was overcome by the magic of Seattle and thinking they could pull the upset.  We should be in for quite the series in Round 2 though, especially out West.  Let's get to the predictions:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Brandon Wheat Kings vs Regina Pats

Both of these teams dominated their opening round series.  Brandon finally extracted revenge on their playoff rivals from Edmonton, eliminating the defending WHL and Memorial Cup Champion Oil Kings in 5 games.  Brandon looked rough in the opening game but poured on 4 straight wins, 3 in Edmonton, to move on to the second round.  Regina, meanwhile, had no problem ousting provincial rivals Swift Current.  The Pats went one better than the Wheaties by sweeping the Broncos.  So both teams looked strong in the opening round but what gives when they match up against one another?  Well, I expect to see another one-sided playoff pairing.  Yes, I was impressed with Regina in their opening round but I do not see them having the firepower and defense to withstand the Wheaties.  Remember, Brandon is a high-scoring machine and, as proven in their opening round series win, they are also very strong on the road.  Can Regina make it close?  Sure.  But close enough to pull the upset?  I don't think so.

#TwineTime pick:  Brandon over Regina in 5 games

Calgary Hitmen vs. Medicine Hat Tigers

Now this is the second round series we all wanted to see.  Calgary vs Medicine Hat!  These two teams fought back and forth during the season for the Central Division championship, with Calgary pulling it out on the final day of the season.  That title means home ice advantage for this playoff series, a huge advantage for the Hitmen.  Medicine Hat really dropped the puck at the end of the season as they looked to have control of the division for most of the year.  But all the credit to the Tigers, they may have limped a bit into the playoffs but found their new life once they arrived.  I really thought Red Deer could give them a better fight but the Tigers dominated the series and finished off their Alberta rivals in 5 games.  Calgary on the other hand almost suffered a bad case of deja vu.  Last year Kootenay game into Calgary and upset the higher seed Hitmen...but not this year.  Calgary was pushed to 7 games but for some reason I really never thought the series victory was in jeopardy.  This is a very good Calgary team and the more and more I see them, the more I think they could give Brandon a good run in the Eastern final.  But don't tell the Tigers fans I said that....they may disagree.  Another provincial rival, another opportunity to show why they are the top team in AB this season Tigers fans?  The barn in Medicine Hat is ready to close at the conclusion of this playoff run, can the Tigers extend the home life of the building for another round?

#TwineTime pick:  Calgary over Medicine Hat in 6 games

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kelowna Rockets vs. Victoria Royals

The B.C. playoff series everyone was expecting is finally here.  Both Kelowna and Victoria made quick work of their opening playoff opponents, with the Rockets beating Tri-City in 4 games and the Royals dispatching the Prince George Cougars in 5.  The talk all season has been on this being Kelowna's year and nobody being able to stop them.  Well we heard a similar story last year and where were they come Memorial Cup time?  This Victoria team is good....really good.  They have confidence entering the playoffs and have beaten the Rockets during the season.  These teams are very familiar with one another and you have to expect to see a bit of rivalry bad blood in this series.  It will get physical.  And I think that works to Victoria's advantage.  If the Royals can push their weight and size around, especially on defense, they could make this an interesting series.  Kelowna will be the favorite at home so this series could come down to the games in Victoria.  The Royals need to hold ice at home for a shot at this series.  If Kelowna can take either game 3 or 4 on the road, this series will probably end in 5 games.

#TwineTime pick:  Kelowna over Victoria in 6 games

Everett Silvertips vs. Portland Winterhawks

Can anyone beat Portland in the playoffs?  These guys just cannot be eliminated....unless they play Edmonton for some reason.  With Edmonton gone, could Portland return to the Memorial Cup this year?  Yes this is not the same dominant team from the Rose City we have seen in the past but they are still explosive and continue to win.  The 6 game series win over Seattle was impressive.  Seattle has a 2-1 series lead going into game 4 at home remember.  Portland ended up winning the game in style, 8-5, and just continued to win.  But now enter Everett.  The Tips were surprise US Division champions this year and had to battle hard to fight off upset-minded Spokane in round 1.  Three of the 6 games went into OT, in fact we saw the OT trifecta in that series.  A OT, 2 OT and 3 OT game.  How often does that happen?  Everett ended up winning 2 of the 3, including the series clincher in 3 OT.  They are battle tested but are they also a bit tired?  While both series went 6 games, add in the extra OT periods played by Everett and that can weigh on a team.  Portland has the bigger players, the more well-known names and the playoff history on their side.  Everett is going into really unknown territory and is trying to stake their claim to being a championship caliber team.  No better way to make your name known that knocking off the 4-time Western Champs.  The games in Portland will be the difference in this series.  The Hawks were 2-1 in the opening round, losing the opening game.  The Tips were a perfect 3-0 on the road.  Expect a split for the opening games in Everett and then things will get interesting.  Which side prevails:  The strong PDX Home Crowd vs the Undefeated Road Warriors?

#TwineTime pick:  Everett over Portland in 7 games

OHL

There are really 2 story lines being watched for in the OHL playoffs:
  1. Can Connor McDavid carry his Erie Otters to the Memorial Cup?
  2. Can anyone stop the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds?

The unfortunate part about the OHL playoff storylines to watch is both happen in the Western Conference, making for a boring Eastern Conference playoff watch.  Let's take a look at the round 2 playoff pairings.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Oshawa Generals over (5) Niagra Ice Dogs in 5 games - Credit Niargra for the opening round series upset win over Ottawa but I do not see a repeat here.  Oshawa is the cream of the crop in the East and should roll through their opponents until the OHL final.

(3) North Bay Battalion over (2) Barrie Colts in 7 games - These teams tied for Central division title with Barrie owning the tiebreaker.  The Colts won home ice advantage for this expected Round 2 matchup but I don't think it will make the difference they are hoping.  Both of these teams can score and score alot.  They both lit the lamp for 17 goals in 4 game sweeps in the opening round.  So offense is even...here comes the difference though.  The defense of North Bay is stronger.  Barrie gave up 7 goals in 4 games eliminating Belleville but the Battalion only conceded 4 goals against Kingston.  Defense can win championships and win series and that will be the difference in this one.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) SSM Greyhounds over (4) Guelph Storm in 4 games - Congrats on that opening round series win Guelph, you get to now be destroyed by SSM in round 2.  I really do not see the Storm putting up much of a fight against an over-sized, stronger, faster Greyhounds team.  This SSM team lit up Saginaw in their opening series sweep, scoring 22 goals in only 4 games.  These guys can score, score often and score fast.

(2) Erie Otters over (3) London Knights in 6 games - When Erie dropped Game 1 of their opening series to Sarnia, some people grew concerned.  This was a bit premature.  Erie steamrolled the next 4 games, including a 7-0 romp at home in the clincher, to easily advance.  Perhaps call it a case of starting off slow or maybe they slightly underestimated their opponents.  Whatever the case, they corrected it quickly and moved on just as fast.  London, on the other hand, was pushed to 6 games against a strong Kitchener squad.  London has been the face of the OHL for the past few seasons at the Memorial Cup, winning the OHL title and serving as hosts within the past 2 years.  I expect the Knights reign to finally come to an end though.  All eyes have been on McDavid but he is not disappointing.  Besides, we all want to see McDavid vs. SSM for the West Final right?

QMJHL

Ah our friends in the Q.  A league with 18 teams, seeing 16 of them making the playoffs.  How tough is it to be in this league and be one of the two teams NOT able to qualify for the playoffs?  You think you had a bad season, imagine being Drummondville or Acadie-Bathurst right now!  In fact the Titan finished 19 points out of the FINAL playoff spot.  It was a lllooonngggg season in Acadie-Bathurst this year.

But let's focus on the positives now.  I love the playoff action in the Q.  They are the only league where they seed the playoff teams from 1 - 16 regardless of division.  They have no conferences and just have the 3 divisions (Maritime, East and West).  Sure winning your division is nice and guarantees you more home playoff games but, in the long run, you are really all in 1 division competing for 16 playoff spots.  The playoff pairings use the simple 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15 and so on for the opening round.  In each subsequent round, the playoff pairings are based on the seeds remaining with highest vs lowest remaining.  The Q is infamous for producing some playoff upsets as well in the first 2 rounds.  We have already seen three upsets in the opening round, could we be in for more?

(1) Rimouski Oceanic over (14) Gatineau Olympiques in 6 games - This playoff matchup is a direct result of a HUGE opening round upset.  Gatineau knocked off the West champion Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in 6 games.  The Olympiques, also in the West division, finished 23 points back of the Armada but completely dominated them in the playoffs.  The pivotal game 5 1-0 win on the road was the turning point and shows the outstanding goaltending and D the Olympiques bring to the table.  Unfortunately, the Cinderella slipper may fall off this round.  The Oceanic are the cream of the crop in the Q this season and heavy favorites to be in the Memorial Cup.  Rimouski breezed through Victoriaville in 4 straight games, never really being tested.  The Oceanic are the East Division champs and have an explosive offense.  Gatineau's defense probably keeps them in the series longer than expected but unless they can shut them down for 4 games, including at least 2 on the road, it is going to be a hard series for the Olympiques.

(2) Moncton Wildcats over (12) Halifax Mooseheads in 7 games - We have ourselves a nice All-Maritime matchup here and a battle of New Brunswick vs Nova Scotia.  This should be an entertaining series.  Moncton is the Atlantic Division champions and finished 25 points ahead of Halifax in the regular season.  The Wildcats had no problems with Chicoutimi in their opening round series, winning in 5 games.  Moncton also sports the regular season scoring champion in Conor Garland (what's the deal with dudes names Connor/Conor this season being so good?), who won the title by 27 points...it wasn't even close.  Halifax, on the other hand, knocked off favored Shawinigan in the opening round.  The Mooseheads were pushed hard, facing 3 OT games in the opening series and coming away with wins in two of them (including the series clincher on the road in game 7).  The Mooseheads will be riding high with confidence and adrenaline right now.  As of press time, they have already won both opening games in Moncton for the 2-0 series lead.  I will stick with my pick though, regardless of those results, and think the Wildcats can mount the comeback, even though they were completed dominated 7-3 and 6-3 at home.  I could be VERY wrong about this pick in a matter of days.

(4) Quebec Remparts over (9) Charlottetown Islanders in 5 games - The Gatineau upset was a Quebec gain as the Remparts move up a line on the playoff bracket and now would avoid Rimouski until the Q final.  Based on the Halifax series, Quebec could get home ice advantage in the next round as well.  Of course assuming they take care of business vs the Islanders.  Quebec is hosting the Memorial Cup this year so they are already assured of their spot.  But, as with the host every year, nobody wants to take the back door into the tournament (although it worked for Shawinigan a few seasons ago losing in the opening playoff round and winning the Cup at home).  The top teams must also be hoping Quebec keeps winning because, should they make the Q final, whomever they play will also receive the Mem Cup bid, regardless of who wins the final.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves yet.  Enter Charlottetown.  The Islanders were the third upset victors in the opening round, knocking off Sherbrooke in 6 games.  Ok maybe a 9 knocking off an 8 isn't a huge upset but still.  This was a massive victory for the program, seeing a team from Prince Edward Island reach the second round of the playoffs.  It also meant 3 Atlantic teams, from 3 different Atlantic provinces, are still enjoying playoff hockey right now.  I love the idea of seeing Charlottetown continue winning but I just cannot see them matching up well against Quebec.  The Islanders are the lowest scoring team still alive and give up way more goals than they score.  That equals trouble against a more explosive offense.  The Remparts barely survived one Atlantic team in the opening round, defeating Cape Breton in 7 games, but I think this will be a much easier test for them.

(7) Baie-Comeau Drakkar over (6) Val-d'Or Foreurs in 6 games - How often do you see the 6-seed vs 7-seed matchup in the second round of the playoffs?  Only in the Q!  With the upsets ahead of them, these two teams find themselves in an unlikely playoff series.  Huge opportunity for both.  While both teams were probably looking at the initial playoff bracket thinking they may need to face Moncton or Quebec in the second round, they get one another instead.  Val-d'Or will be led on offense by Anthony Richard, 91 points in the regular season and already with 10 playoff points.  This Foreurs team can score in bunches, shown in their opening round win over Rouyn-Noranda (including a 9-2 series clincher on the road).  The problem is they also give up a lot of goals.  During the regular season they scored an impressive 283 goals but conceded 266.  The Huskies dropped a 8-3 win on them in game 2 remember.  The Drakkar can also light the lamp, scoring 26 goals in the 5 game opening series win over St. John.  During the regular season, the Drakkar put up 227 goals but only allowed 237.  Baie-Comeau is used to low scoring, tight hockey games.  The kind you usually find yourself in during the playoffs.  This gives them a huge advantage if they can keep the games close.  This is going to be a battle between the pipes.  I don't see either side having an advantage.  At best, I think whichever goalie can get hot first and find the confidence will be the difference maker.  I like the upset!

So there you have it.  Round 2 playoff previews and predictions for the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.  Let's see how good my predictions will be.  With the NHL playoffs starting this week, don't forget to go support your local junior playoff teams as well, if they are still competing.  You will not be disappointed in the action on the ice...and I am sure we can all agree playoff action live beats playoff action on the TV anyday, regardless of the level.

Feel free to share with my your thoughts, agree or disagree, on these predictions either through a comment below or on my twitter account.  I always enjoy talking playoff hockey with fellow junior hockey fans!