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CHL Storylines: Knights, Generals hold strangleholds in OHL conference finals


The Canadian Hockey League’s conference finals are underway as teams push to reach their league finals.

With analysis from TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, here is a look at where the how each of the conference finals have gone so far.

In a series that featured the two best regular season teams, the London Knights hold a 3-1 stranglehold over the Saginaw Spirit heading into Friday’s Game 5.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Easton Cowan has led the way for the Knights so far in the series, recording two goals and six points through four games, including three multi-point games.

The 5-foot-10 winger was second on the team in scoring in the regular season with 34 goals and 96 points and has added four goals and 14 points in the postseason. 

He was named the Red Tilson Trophy winner on Thursday as the Ontario Hockey League’s Most Outstanding Player.

San Jose Sharks prospect Kasper Halttunen stepped up his game in the playoffs, leading the Knights with nine goals and 15 points. The 6-foot-3 winger is enjoying his first year in the OHL, recording 32 goals and 61 points in the regular season.

“Halttunen creates multiple headaches for defences because he can score from anywhere on the ice,” explained Button. “He’s a big-time shooter that if given any space, he can put the puck in the net. He can score from 45 feet with his booming shot which makes defences have to decide if they’re going to defend the blueline or the inside.”

Goaltender Michael Simpson has been outstanding for the Knights in the series, only allowing more than three goals in the one loss to the Spirit. Simpson was acquired by the Knights in September from the Peterborough Petes after he starred in last year’s playoffs and was named playoff MVP in Peterborough.

The 6-foot-1 netminder went on to register a 34-10-2 record in the regular season in London and had a league-best 2.61 goals-against average to go along with a .905 save percentage. He has continued his stellar play in the playoffs, going 11-1 with a 2.52 GAA and .910 save percentage.

“Simpson has lots of experience playing in big games and last year with the Petes and he was key to their success,” said Button. “Peterborough had a team that could stifle you defensively and then teams had to beat Simpson if they got past the defence.

“This year he’s on a Knights team that is more balanced and has more offence, so he doesn’t have to stand on his head.”

One of the major advantages the Knights have had heading into their series against the Spirit is that they’ve had the benefit of rest. London swept through the first two rounds against the Flint Firebirds and Kitchener Rangers.

Meanwhile the Spirit were able to sweep through the first round against the Owen Sound Attack, but went up against a buzz saw in the Soo Greyhounds in the second round. The Greyhounds finished with the league’s third best record and forced the Spirit to seven games before eventually going down.

“The real benefit for finishing first in the West this season was not having to play Sault Ste. Marie in the second round of the playoffs,” said Button.

The Spirit lost starting goaltender Andrew Oke in the second round after sustaining an upper-body injury in Game 2 against the Greyhounds. Nolan Lalonde stepped in the net and has gone 4-6 in the playoffs with a 2.84 GAA, including a 3-1 Game 7 win over the Greyhounds.

Saginaw was also without star defenceman Zayne Parekh in the final two games against the Soo and the first two games against the Knights. Parekh left Game 6 against the Greyhounds after an altercation with Greyhounds forward Marco Mignosa and had to be helped off the ice.

Parekh led the CHL with 33 goals and 96 points this season and claimed the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the OHL’s defenceman of the year on Wednesday. The 6-foot right-shot defenceman is a top prospect in the 2024 NHL Draft and is Button’s highest-ranked CHL player on his March draft list at No. 3.

“Saginaw is a top team in the OHL, but you can only go so far without your top players when you’re taking on other top teams,” said Button. “You can weather to certain point but there’s only so far you can go.”

The Nobleton, Ont., native returned to the Spirit lineup in Game 3 and has three assists in the series. Parekh is tied for second in playoff scoring among defencemen with two goals and 11 points and is two points behind teammate Rodwin Dioniciofor the league lead.

London has the opportunity to finish off the Spirit and advance to J. Ross Robertston Cup Final in Game 5 on Friday.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Oshawa Generals took a stranglehold of their series against the North Bay Battalion by winning the first three games. The Battalion were able to hold off elimination by beating the Generals 5-4 in overtime on Wednesday.

Oshawa has been led by Colorado Avalanche prospect Calum Ritchie, who has registered two goals and eight points in the series. After missing the first couple of months while recovering from shoulder surgery, the 6-foot-2 centre led the Generals in scoring during the regular season with 28 goals and 80 points in 50 games.

“If he played the full year, I believe he would’ve led the league and scoring and won the OHL MVP,” said Button. “The Avalanche got an absolute stud [in the draft] because people didn’t understand how the injury impacted his play last year. This year from the time he came back to now, he’s been the best player in the league.”

Ritchie continues to be among the top scorers in the playoffs with six goals and 21 points.

Top prospect Beckett Sennecke leads Oshawa in scoring throughout the playoffs with 10 goals and 22 points. The 6-foot-3 winger has four goals and seven points against the Battalion.

Sennecke has scored in bunches throughout the playoffs, recording eight multipoint games and has failed to record a point only once.

“It’s taken me a little bit of time to feel confident in him as an NHL player, but he keeps showing more and more,” said Button. “The biggest thing with him is that he’s learned how to take his strong individual play and integrate it with the team. I think Richie has helped him in that regard and now he’s doing it exceptionally well.”

Goaltender Jacob Oster started all 14 playoff games for the Generals and is second in the league with a 1.99 GAA to go along with an 11-3 record and .932 save percentage. The 6-foot-3 netminder was second to Simpson in the regular season with a 2.82 GAA to go along with a 35-16-8 record and .905 save percentage.

Oshawa has a chance to finish off the Battalion in Game 5 on Friday to advance to the J. Ross Robertson Cup Final.

Blades, Warriors locked in tight series

The Saskatoon Blades and Moose Jaw Warriors are in a tight 2-2 series in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference Final.

Both teams have traded wins in the first four games and three of the games required overtime.

The Blades entered the series as the favourite after leading the WHL with a 50-13-5 record and defeated the Prince Albert Raiders in five games then swept the Red Deer Rebels.

Through four games against the Warriors, Anaheim Ducks prospect Yegor Sidorov leads the team with three goals and five points, including the overtime winner in Game 4’s 5-4 victory.

The 6-foot winger leads the WHL playoffs with 13 goals to go along with his 19 points. He had 50 goals and 88 points in 66 games in the regular season.

“He knows how to play the game and he’s a nightmare to handle defensively one-on one,” said Button. “[His confidence] has grown from thinking he can do it to knowing he can do it as well as knowing how to do it all the time.”

Also standing out for the Blades is Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brandon Lisowsky who has two goals and five points against the Warriors, including a three-point night in Game 4.

Lisowsky has six goals and 16 points in the playoffs after recording 42 goals and 80 points in 68 regular season games.

Rookie Evan Gardner has taken the lion’s share of the starts in the playoffs, including all four games against the Warriors. He leads the playoffs with a 2.06 GAA to go along with a .916 save percentage and 9-2 record.

Gardner and veteran netminder Austin Elliott shared the load during the regular season. Gardner appeared in 30 regular season games and led the WHL with a 1.91 GAA and .927 save percentage along with his 21-5-0 record.

Elliot appeared in 43 games, recording a 29-8-2 record with a 2.39 GAA and .904 save percentage.

“It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, junior teams have trouble finding one goaltender so when you have two, it’s great,” said Button. “They push each other and there’s a lot of competition I the net. It also gives coaches comfort knowing that they can turn one way or the other.”

The Warriors have been led all year by WHL leading scorer Jagger Firkus. The Seattle Kraken prospect led the league with 61 goals and 126 points, narrowly beating out Prince George Cougars star Zac Funk.

The 5-foot-11 centre is back at the top of the WHL leaderboard in the playoffs with 10 goals and 24 points through 13 games. Firkus has a goal and six points through four games against the Blades.

“Everything that Firkus does is done at an elite level,” said Button. “He is a killer because he enjoys taking advantage of situations to beat his opponent. You can try to defend him but he’s thinking one or two steps ahead of you.”

Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Denton Mateychuk joins Firkus at the top of the playoff scoring leaderboard with six goals and 23 points, including four points against the Blades. 

The 5-foot-11 left-shot defenceman was third among defencemen in scoring during the regular season with 17 goals and 75 points in 52 games.

“[Mateychuk] has superb poise, drive, and he’s a general out there on the blueline,” said Button. “He has a willingness to be a driver and push the game offensively and defensively.”

Jackson Unger has carried the load in net for the Warriors going 10-3 with a 3.08 GAA and .903 save percentage. The 6-foot-1 netminder had a 35-15-2 record in the regular season with a .308 GAA and .908 save percentage.

The Warriors and Blades will attempt to take the series advantage in a pivotal Game 5 on Friday.

In the Western Conference the Cougars staved off elimination on Thursday after defeating the Portland Winterhawks 6-1 in Game 5.

The Winterhawks entered Thursday’s game holding a 3-1 series advantage and were looking to advance to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Final for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

Leading the way for Portland in the series has been the play of their biggest trade deadline acquisition in Nate Danielson. The Detroit Red Wings prospect made his impact felt by recording a goal and 10 points through five games.

“Danielson is a fascinating type of player because he’s built for these types of playoff series,” said Button. “He’s someone who is relentless and unwilling to give into any of the challenges in front of him, which permeates through the team.”

Danielson was acquired by the Winterhawks in a blockbuster deal with the Brandon Wheat Kings that sent forward Nick Johnson, defenceman Rhett Ravndahl, and three draft picks the other way. After joining the Winterhawks, the 6-foot-2 forward went on to register 12 goals and 41 points in 28 regular season games.

“The Red Wings drafted him in the top 10 last year and they’re watching to see the qualities he brings in the playoffs,” said Button. Teams are looking all the time to see how players handle challengers and the deeper you go in the playoffs; it gives the player more of an opportunity to test themselves.”

The other major acquisition at the deadline paying dividends was signing Kraken prospect Tyson Jugnauth out of the NCAA’s University of Wisconsin. The 6-foot-1 defenceman was a point-per-game player since joining the team in January and has four goals and 14 points in the playoffs.

Against the Cougars, Jugnauth has continued his scoring pace recording five assists six games.

“Portland knew who their competition was [throughout the regular season] and were looking for ways to improve themselves to prepare for this series,” said Button. “Adding Jugnauth gave them a point-per-game defenceman who has been able to find a fit in Portland where he can advance his game and find success.”

Prince George has been led by a three-headed offensive monster in forwards Zac Funk, Riley Heidt, and Terik Parascak.

In the conference final, Parascak was forced to miss Games 4 and 5 after taking a hit from Winterhawks forward Marcus Nguyen in Game 2.

Meanwhile, Heidt and Funk, who finished second and third in WHL scoring, respectively, have been held to two points each in the series.

“One of the things that happens is when you have so much success like Funk and Heidt has had, when they go up against better competition, they have to find a way [to perform],” said Button. “Funk, for example, is a good player but the Winterhawks are going to mark him. He needs to understand how they’re playing against him and what they’re doing. Both players are smart and skilled enough to figure it out.”

Stepping up for the Cougars has been captain Hudson Thornton, Los Angeles Kings prospect Koehn Ziemmer, and 2024 NHL draft prospect Ondrej Beecher who all have six points through five games. 

Portland has a chance to close out the Cougars in Game 6 on Monday.

Baie-Comeau advances, Drummondville on the cusp

The Baie-Comeau Drakkar became the first Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey team to advance to the league final after they beat the Cape Breton Eagles 2-1 in overtime on Thursday to win the Eastern Conference Final in five games.

The Drakkar were the QMJHL’s top team in the regular season, going 53-12-3 and then swept their way through the first two rounds to take on the Eagles in the conference final.

Wingers Justin Gill and Justin Poirier are tied at the top of the QMJHL scoring leader board with 25 points each and both players made their presence known in this series.

Poirier exploded for seven goals and 11 points in the five-game series. The 5-foot-8 winger was a goal scoring machine in the regular season, recording 51 goals and 82 points in 68 games and he’s continued that pace in the playoffs with 17 goals in 13 games.

“I think Poirier is like Jonathan Marchessault [of the Vegas Golden Knights],” said Button. “He has a wicked release with velocity, and he arrives at the right spot at the right times. He doesn’t get himself into any unnecessary battles.”

The Valleyfield, Que., native is turning heads this season as he is eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft in Las Vegas.

“You don’t have to draft somebody because of their size, but the only reason you won’t draft him is because of the tape measure,” said Button. “Whatever you think of Poirier as a prospect, there’s no denying he’s an elite goal scorer and has the ability to do it when it counts the most.”

Gill had five goals and 10 points against the Eagles, including assisting on both goals in the deciding Game 5. The New York Islanders prospect finished second in league scoring in the regular season with 40 goals and 98 points and was nominated for the Michel-Briere Trophy for league MVP.

“Gill had a disappointing playoff loss while playing with Sherbrooke last season and I think he took those lessons to heart,” said Button. “All he does is score, he did it last year and he’s doing it again this year. He’s been an elite player and has shown he can perform at an elite level in the QMJHL.”

Charles-Edward Gravel leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.99 GAA to go along with a .918 save percentage and 11-1 record. The 6-foot-1 netminder only allowed three or more goals four times in the playoffs and just once against the Eagles.

Gravel had a 31-17-1 record in the regular season with a 2.48 GAA and .909 save percentage.

Baie-Comeau now waits for the winner between the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Victoriaville Tigres, who play Game 5 on Friday.

The Voltigeurs took the first three games of the series by a combined score of 10-4 but the Tigres were able to win Game 4 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday to hold off elimination.

Drummondville has been getting balanced scoring, led by Buffalo Sabres prospect Vsevolod Komarov who has two goals and three points in the series. 

Komarov led all QMJHL defencemen in scoring during the regular season with 14 goals and 69 points, which led him to being named the Emile Bouchard Trophy winner as the league’s top defenceman.

“He benefitted from playing for Patrick Roy when he was a member of the Quebec Remparts,” said Button. “Roy helped teach him how to use his stick and get into the right space. He dares players to try to beat him and it’s like trying to get around a pterodactyl.”

The 6-foot-3 defenceman has four goals and 11 points in the playoffs, four points behind Drakkar defenceman Niks Fenenko for the most at that position.

“He’s unique for the Sabres because they don’t have many players like him,” said Button. “Buffalo has great players on the blueline like Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Bowen Byram, but Komarov’s size helps round it out.”

Captain Luke Woodworth also made his presence known in the series, recording a goal and five points against the Tigres. The 5-foot-9 centre was a point-per-game player in the regular season, registering 21 goals and 62 points in 62 games and maintained that pace in the playoffs with six goals and 16 points.

Riley Mercer has been strong in net for Drummondville leading the playoffs with a .926 save percentage and is second with a 2.07 GAA while going 11-3. The 6-foot-2 netminder had a 31-13-4 record in the regular season with a .905 save percentage and 2.83 GAA.