PLAYOFF PREVIEW: STORM OFFENCE VERSUS ATTACK DEFENCE A CRUCIAL BATTLE

68 regular season games are in bag, and strong play has resulted in a fourth-place finish for the Guelph Storm in the Western Conference standings. The OHL’s postseason begins for the Storm on Friday, and they’ve drawn a tough first round matchup. Guelph will take on the Owen Sound attack in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and a lengthy series is to be expected from the two teams.

Guelph owns the season series (5-2-0-1), but the record is truly a misrepresentation of what has been a very tight season series. Look no farther than the fact 5 of 8 games this season between the teams have been one-goal games (6/8 if you include a Guelph 3-1 win that included an empty-netter). Truthfully, fewer teams have played Guelph better than Owen Sound this season. Coupled with the closeness of the games is the way the teams matchup. Both teams are a unique mix of offensive/defensive strengths and for whatever reason it’s resulted in some pretty evenly matched battles.

Guelph holds home-ice advantage, and as a result will host Owen Sound in the series’ first game on Friday. Before the puck drops, let’s take a look at how the teams matchup and some key matchups to watch out for.

OFFENCE

On a purely objective level, the teams have very similar offensive capacities. Owen Sound’s team offence ranks fourth in the west (240 goals) compared with Guelph at fifth (237 goals).

The Attack are led by the Edmonton Oilers fourth round pick of 2013, Kyle Platzer, who has tallied 81 points in 68 games this season. Behind Platzer is captain Zach Nastasiuk, with 77 points, and overage forward Erik Bradford, with 73 points. Rounding out the top-5 in Attack scoring are high-output defencemen Chris Bigras with 71 points (second in OHL defencemen) and second-year player Thomas Schemitsch with 49. Finnish rookie Petrus Palmu has also been an Attack standout this season with 42 points on the campaign, and he’ll certainly look to break out in this, his first OHL playoff games.

The Storm counter with similar top-5 scoring output. Tyler Bertuzzi had his best junior campaign this season with 98 points to lead the team. Pius Suter had himself a breakout season in his draft year, and tied the team-lead in goals with 43. First-year captain and Dallas Stars prospect had another solid season with 71 points despite being limited at times by injury and illness. Arguably Guelph’s best player, first-round St. Louis pick Robby Fabbri, played a huge role in limited action this year and scored at a near 2-point/game pace in 30 games for the Storm. Chris Marchese also had a big season after being acquired midway through the season from the Spitfires and has tallied 35 points in 30 games wearing crimson colours.

While not to diminish the potential impact of key Attack players like Platzer and Nastaskiuk, it’s hard to ignore the deadliness of the Storm offense. Think about how many points Fabbri could have scored if he’d have been healthy for 68 games. Easily 100+. What if Chris Marchese had been playing alongside Fabbri and Bertuzzi all season? It’s not unfathomable to think he’d have 70 or 80+ points.

Guelph has five, elite scoring weapons. Many of which have deep playoff experience. They’re going to be incredibly tough to contain, whether 5-on-5, or on the powerplay. It’s scary, really.

Advantage: Guelph

DEFENCE

Aside from the abundance of Guelph injuries all season long, the biggest concern for the Storm has been the reliability of the blueline. It hasn’t been a problem of a forehead-slapping nature, but it has been suspect at times.

Phil Baltisberger headlines the group of defenceman tasked with limiting a good group of Attack forwards. The Swiss defenceman has emerged from the shadows of former Storm defenseman Matt Finn and Nick Ebert and has really been tasked with contesting the opposition’s best players every night.

C.J. Garcia, who was acquired from Barrie in exchange for Ben Harpur, has been spectacular since coming to Storm city. He proficiently captains the powerplay and has provided real energy minutes.

Aside from these two, there have been questions. Noah Carroll, Garrett McFadden, Kyle Rhodes and Austin Hall are all unproven defensive commodities, and while I have been impressed to various degrees by each of them it’ll be a big test to see if they can calm a blueline through the playoffs.

These were questions I had on my mind before the premature junior retirement of Zac Leslie, who played the majority of the season before having shoulder surgery, and it’s a problem that will be one to watch especially since he’s gone.

Conversely, Owen Sound’s defense has been an area of real strength. Their 211 goals allowed ranks fourth in the West this season and looking at their roster it’s easy to see why. Avalance prospect Chris Bigras is one of the best the OHL has to offer. He’s also supported by a very talented group including Thomas Schemitsch, Damir Sharipzyanov and Santino Centorame. The quartet of defensive have combined for 48 goals and 136 assists this season and have been equally impressive on the defensive side of the puck. 

I like me some Baltisberger and Garcia, but Owen Sound gets the edge for having a strong cast of net protectors.

Advantage: Owen Sound

GOALTENDING

One of the most consistent elements of Guelph’s game has been the play of Justin Nichols. Not only because he’s been one of Guelph’s few players to not have been significantly held from the lineup due to injury, but because on most every night he delivers as advertised.

He brings season averages of 3.26 GAA and .907 SV% into the 2014/15 playoffs along with an impressive 34 regular season wins.

To counter Nichols, Owen Sound will likely rely on Halifax-native Jack Flinn, who played in 43 regular season games for the Attack.  The 19-year old goalie has had a very respectable season and has been very reliable under an excellent defensive scheme for the Attack. He has posted a 2.99 GAA and .908 SV% this season with 18 wins.

A year ago, Guelph won the OHL championship and made a very memorable Memorial Cup run. Guelph was stacked all up-and-down the lineup, and won their OHL banner handedly. A very undervalued part of that championship run was the play of Justin Nichols. Whether or not you choose to handicap his performance based on the strength of the team around him is up to the individual. I can’t argue that he particularly stole games in the 2013/14 OHL playoffs. But I do know he’s been there. He’s danced in the big dance and that alone gives Guelph a major advantage.

Without a doubt I can see a scenario where Flinn outduels Nichols – it’s in the realm of possibility. But I see a clearer picture wherein Nichols him.

Advantage: Guelph

Breakdown this matchup however you’d like, it’s all relatively meaningless. For 8 games this season, this matchup has been a battle. Especially considering we’re entering playoff hockey, the matchup will go to the team that rises to the occasion. The matchup is close enough to be a toss-up. We’re likely headed seven games, and it’s going to be a fun ride.

PICK: Guelph in 7.

 

Joe Krizman
In 2013, Joe graduated from Queen's University with a degree in Physical and Health Education. During his years in school, he spent his summers off working with kids at a summer camp; an experience he credits as being highly influential in shaping who he is today. Joe followed up his university degree by moving out to Calgary for the 2013/14 hockey season, where he served as the Coordinator of Player Development & Recruitment for the Western Hockey League (WHL) in their head office. Having developed a love for major junior hockey with the WHL, he is excited to be getting involved with it again this season back in his hometown of Guelph. A self-proclaimed "sports enthusiast", Joe is thrilled about getting the opportunity to share his thoughts and sports insights in a new way.