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With the 2nd half of the OHL season well underway, the positioning of playoff-hungry teams are beginning to fall into place, with the exception of a few tight races.
Race for East Title:
In the east, it is becoming quite clear who the leader of the OHL playoff pack will be at the conclusion of the regular season. After selling off almost their entire future to make a run for the Memorial Cup in Regina this May, the Hamilton Bulldogs have created a 9 point gap between themselves and 2nd place Niagara Ice Dogs. Also, their next closest divisional opponent is the 11 points behind Kingston Frontenacs. With around 20 games remaining, the winner of the Eastern Conference seems to be decided, if not only a fight between two teams.
Playoff Positioning 5th to 8th:
The bottom of the Eastern Conference is where things get interesting in terms of playoff positioning. Teams currently in 5th-8th are only separated by 5 points, each with around 20 games remaining. To start, currently in 5th position is the North Bay Battalion (50 points), featuring Calgary Flames prospect Riley Bruce. The defenseman was taken 196th overall in the 7th round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Bruce has a career-high 17 points in 47 games played with the Battalion. His ability to continue his role as a shutdown defenseman will be key to the Battalion’s success moving forward. The Battalion have the easiest remaining schedule with 12 of their last 20 games all against opponents below .500.
Next in the race of the Eastern Conference, are the 6th place Oshawa Generals who are currently 1 point behind the Battalion in the standings. The Generals are coming off an up and down first half, following many players and coaching injuries that have them falling short of their set expectations. Oshawa features 3 NHL prospects in forward Jack Studnicka (BOS), goaltender Kyle Keyser (BOS) and defenseman Matt Brassard (VAN). All three players have been crucial to the success of the Generals this season.
Studnicka, Oshawa’s captain has accumulated 49 points in 48 games, 36 of which coming as assists. Matt Brassard became the offensive defenseman the Generals needed following the trade that sent Florida Panthers prospect Riley Stillman to the Bulldogs. In 48 games Brassard has 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points from the blue line. Finally, the reason the Generals are even in the race of playoff positioning is that of 3rd-year goaltender Kyle Keyser. Signed as a free agent by Boston in 2017, Keyser has battled many stints of injuries this season. Only playing in 31 games, Keyser has earned a record of 17-8-2 while posting a save percentage of .904.
The Generals are in tough in this final stretch of the season as they play top teams Kingston and Hamilton a combined 8 times in their next 20.
The Ottawa 67’s currently found themselves stuck in 7th place after a crushing 4-3 OT loss to the Oshawa Generals on January 28th. Currently, with 46 points, the 67’s are looking to their leading scorers and rookie sensation to get them back on the right track.
Leading scorer and San Jose Shark’s prospect Sasha Chmelevski has been the scoring touch for the 67’s this season. With 22 goals and 23 assists in 48 games, his continued success will help Ottawa avoid a tough 2 v 7 matchup in the opening round. Other NHL flavor on the 67’s included COL 7th round selection in 2016, Travis Barron, and ARI 4th round selection in 2017, Noel Hoefenmayer. Both of which relied on heavily in the forward and defensive aspects of the game in Ottawa.
Ottawa seems to have the toughest path to 5th place potential, as only 3 of their remaining 20 games are against opponents below .500.
Finally, the repeat “Cinderella Story” of the OHL’s east, the Mississauga Steelheads. At the beginning of the season, the Steelheads were projected to be a top team in the east again. Come Christmas time, the team from Mississauga found themselves at the bottom of the conference. It did not set in a lot of panic to many, as it is the exact situation that the team was in last season, except this time, they won’t pull 1st place out of their hats.
The recent stretch of success for the Steelheads can be credited to none other than their dynamic trio of NHL drafted players. Florida Panther’s prospect Owen Tippet, New Jersey’s Michael McLeod, and Las Vegas’ Nicolas Hague. These three are the main reason the Steelheads are in the mix of playoff position after a stretch of 8-2-0, and a current 4 game winning streak. Owen Tippet has finally found his scoring prowess, with points in 13 of his last 14 games, including 14 goals and 14 assists in that stretch. Defenseman Nic Hague continues to put the puck in the net, leading all defenseman in the OHL with 25 goals. Earlier this season, the New Jersey Devils returned Michael McLeod to the Steelheads and was a welcomed addition. He has scored 23 points in 18 games since his return.
To conclude, the Mississauga Steelheads are 5 points back of North Bay for the 5th seed but are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. The Steelheads will look to continue their hot play down the stretch. Therefore, the cards seem to be in Mississauga’s hands, but with 20 games remaining, it will most likely come down to the final weekend to determine the final playoff picture.