Well so much for my prediction of an easy first round opponent for the London Knights. They drew the Memorial Cup host Windsor Spitfires. The Spitfires are a team that besides the Owen Sound Attack has given the Knights a great deal of trouble this season. London will have to deal with size of the Spitfire forwards with their defence keeping them to the outside as much as they can. If the Knights can’t keep the traffic in front of Tyler Parsons to a minimum it will present a host of problems for London. The Spitfires haven’t been this healthy all season and are primed to prove the critics, me included that they won’t back their way into the Memorial Cup.
Breaking down the teams by position is probably the most logical way to look at this series. The Spitfires are the prototypical “BIG AND HEAVY” team and London relies on speed and a quick first pass out of the zone.
It is often said in this day and age of hockey that goaltending is 70% of your team and if you don’t have good goaltending it’s a 100%. This season with the London Knights they have in my opinion the top goaltender in the OHL if not the CHL in Tyler Parsons. Without Parsons when he was winning the WJC or nursing injuries the Knights were nothing more than an ordinary team. With him they are almost unbeatable as he is the key to the Knights success. He will carry this team as far as they will go.
The Spitfires have a special goaltender of their own in Michael DiPietro. The 17yr old played 51 games this season and it is a lot to ask of a goalie that just turned 17 to carry an experienced OHL team all season and into the playoffs. What Windsor does have that the Knights don’t have is an experienced backup. Mario Culina has been solid all season with the Spitfires and could bail out DiPietro. Windsor has the ability to prevail in a game or series IF DiPietro isn’t at the top of his game.
So with that being said the edge goes to the Knights over the Spitfires by a wide margin in the goaltending category.
The London Knights have veteran defence corps led by Vancouver Canuck first round NHL draft pick Olli Juoveli and newly acquired Mitchell Vande Sompel from the Oshawa Generals at the trade deadline. The key to the offensive start for the Knights is Montreal Canadiens draft pick Victor Mete. He is the most creative defenceman in the OHL and his skating and first pass are second to none. Brandon Crawley a 4 yr vet with London is adequate at keeping the traffic clear from in front of Parsons but has a penchant for trying to be too offensive and leaving his defensive responsibilities at times. The bottom 3 defencemen for the Knights include Evan Bouchard, Nicolas Mattinen and Jacob Golden. All adequate and steady but are rarely asked to do too much and see minimal ice time compared to the top 3.
The Windsor Spitfires on the other hand have the most experienced and top to bottom the most talented defence in the OHL. Mikhail Sergachev is without a doubt the best defenceman to play in the OHL in a long while and has the ability to change a game at an instant. Sean Day and Jalen Chatfield would be top defenceman on any team in the OHL and are a good complement to Sergachev. Former Knight Tyler Nother rounds out the top 4 defencemen for the Spitfires and it is a solid top 4 all can defend well and a move the puck consistently without being a liability. Austin McEneny and Daniel Robertson see little ice but are adequate as a bottom pair.
The edge on defence would certainly have to go the the Spitfires as I would take that top 4 over any top 4 in the CHL at this stage of the season and Sergachev is a special player to say the least.
The Knights went for broke at the trade deadline as they acquired Mitchell Stephens and Dante Salituro. Both have been welcome additions to a Knights forward group that needed more scoring and creative playmaking. Along with Cliff Pu and rookie Alex Formenton the Knights can create scoring chances every time they touch the puck. The key to this group will be as it has been all season the play of Max Jones. If Jones can stick to playing hockey and not cost his team by taking foolish penalties then London will be able create the time and space needed to allow the speedy forward group offensive chances. London should be able to roll 3 lines consistently against the Spitfires and the plan would be to run the bigger Spitfires forwards out of gas. Adam Carbonara, Janne Kuokkenen will play an expanded role in the playoffs as they are another pair of bigger forwards that can push back against the Spitfires.
The Spitfires are the polar opposite to the Knights as they rely on big strong forwards and 2 of the smaller but most creative players in the league in Jeremy Bracco and Gabe Vilardi. Look for the Spitfires to crash the net creating havoc in front of Parsons and creating time and space for Bracco and Vilardi and Sergachev to join the rush and take advantage of the slow foot speed of the Knights defencemen. With the exception of Mete who the Spitfires will use their size to punish him and move him off the puck in tight spaces.
This is the toughest group to call. The edge would have to go to the Knights but as I have said all season as long as Jones sticks to hockey. If the lose Jones to suspension or injury the nod would go to the Spitfires.
As far as the Series goes it is literally a pick em series. But the factor not discussed is the coaching and in this league experience is key. Dale Hunter is a master of getting the most out of his players and winning when he shouldn’t. So with that being said I have to pick the Knights in 7.