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CHL Storylines: Spirit, Greyhounds battle in tough Round 2 series

Alex Christopoulos Saginaw Spirit Justin Cloutier Soo Greyhounds Alex Christopoulos Justin Cloutier - Soo Greyhounds (@OHLHoundPower)

The 2023-24 Canadian Hockey League playoffs are in full swing as teams continue to chase league titles and a spot in the Memorial Cup in Saginaw.

We are halfway through the second round, with six of the 12 series concluded.

With analysis from TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, here is a look at the second round of the playoffs so far.

In the Ontario Hockey League, three of the four series have ended in four-game sweeps, leaving the Saginaw Spirit and Soo Greyhounds’ matchup as the only question mark.

The two sides are bitter divisional rivals and both teams ended with a top-three record in the OHL.

Saginaw took the West Division this season with a 50-16-2 record with the Greyhounds seven points behind. After the Spirit failed to surpass the London Knights for the top spot in the conference, they knew the road to the Western Conference Final was likely to go through Sault Ste. Marie in the second round.

The series now sits at a 2-2 tie with the pivotal Game 5 set to take place on Friday evening.

“These are two really good teams that have taken advantage of opportunities, and now the series is a best of three,” said Button. "It won’t shock me one bit if this series goes seven games. In my view, the three best teams in the OHL this season have been the Knights, Spirit, and Greyhounds.”

The Greyhounds entered the series after sweeping the Guelph Storm in the first round. They finished the regular season with a 45-18-5 record, which was good enough to be the third-best record in the OHL.

In the second round, they have been riding the hot play of forward Jordan D’Intino, who has five goals and six points in the series so far. The 6-foot-1 winger recorded a hat trick in Game 2, which led the team to a 5-2 victory.

After the Spirit won Game 3 to take the series lead, D’Intino recorded a goal and an assist in Game 4 to help tie the series.

“When you get unexpected contributions from players who are doing things that normally you don’t expect, it’s a bonus,” said Button. “In the playoffs, for any league, that’s been shown to be beneficial for decades.”

D’Intino recorded 20 goals and 41 points in the regular season and added two goals and five points in the in the first round.

Also making an impact has been Chicago Blackhawks prospect Gavin Hayes, who has registered a goal and five points through four games. The 6-foot-2 winger was acquired prior to the CHL trade deadline from the Flint Firebirds in exchange for forwards Connor Clattenburg, Alex Kostov, and four draft picks.

“I think in Flint there was a lot asked of him without a lot of support,” said Button of Hayes. “In the Soo, you aren’t asking less of him, but he has more support around him. He doesn’t have to put the whole group on himself alone.”

Since joining the Greyhounds, Hayes recorded 18 goals and 40 points in 28 regular-season games and added three goals and seven points in the first round. Hayes also helped the United States win World Junior gold in January, recording two assists in seven games.

“The experience of playing with good players at the World Juniors helps him understand what it takes to win at a high level,” said Button. “Those experiences, along with the talent and support around him, has allowed him to shine.”

On the back end, much of the Greyhounds’ offence runs through Vegas Golden Knights prospect Arttu Karki. The 6-foot-2 left-shot defenceman ended the season with 21 goals and 45 points in 59 games.

The Viala, Finland native also recorded three assists in seven games for his country at the World Juniors, leading them to a fourth-place finish.

Karki has continued his strong offensive play in the playoffs with two goals and five points in eight games, including two assists so far in the second round.

“When you’re going to create offence at the blueline, you have to be really in tune with where the opportunities are coming from,” said Button. “He’s not hesitant in recognizing good offensive opportunities and to be a good offensive defenceman, you have to have that quality.”

Saginaw came into this second-round series after eliminating the Owen Sound Attack in a four-game sweep in Round 1.

While the Greyhounds have been getting their offence from a singular source in the second round, the Spirit have relied on the depth to get the job done.

In the four games played, Saginaw has 10 different goal scorers and only forwards Calem Mangone and Alex Christopoulos have lit the lamp more than once.

Anaheim Ducks prospect Rodwin Dionicio has been the catalyst on the back end so far in the series, recording a goal and four points. The 6-foot-2 defenceman was one of the numerous moves the Spirit made throughout the season to shore up their team as they prepare to host the Memorial Cup.

Dionicio finished third among OHL defencemen in scoring with 25 goals and 73 points split between the Windsor Spitfires and Spirit. He is part of a deep defensive core that includes top 2024 NHL draft prospect Zayne Parekh, and Ottawa Senators draft pick Jorian Donovan.

“He’s an excellent skater and plays with confidence,” Button said of Dionicio. “He’s a player who takes the initiative, takes the ball and is ready to run with it. He wants to make a difference in any game he plays, and I have no doubt he’ll be an NHL player.”

Andrew Oke has been stellar in net for the Spirit during the playoffs, leading the league with a 1.83 goals-against average and .938 save percentage through six games. This was highlighted during the Spirit’s 4-0 victory over the Greyhounds in Game 1, stopping 39 shots for the victory.

However, Oke sustained an upper-body injury in that game and Nolan Lalonde had to take over the net for the Spirit. The 6-foot-1 netminder has gone 1-2 in the playoffs so far with a 3.23 GAA and .867 save percentage.

Lalonde began the season with the Erie Otters before being acquired by the Spirit through the Sarnia Sting in October. Lalonde went 21-6-1 in Saginaw with a 3.16 GAA and .874 save percentage.

“It’s a real nice luxury [to have two good goaltenders] and it was a really good move to acquire Lalonde,” said Button. “I think the nice thing about it is when you play three games in four days, you don’t tax your goaltending. It helps you be more ready for the challenges ahead.”

The winner of this series will take on the Knights in the Western Conference Final after the Knights swept the Kitchener Rangers in the second round.

OHL Round 2:

Eastern Conference:

(1) Oshawa Generals beat (6) Ottawa 67’s 4-0
(2) North Bay Battalion beat (5) Sudbury Wolves 4-0

Western Conference:

(1) London Knights beat (4) Kitchener Rangers 4-0
(2) Saginaw Spirit vs. (3) Soo Greyhounds tied 2-2

Blades cruise to conference final

The Saskatoon Blades are headed to the Eastern Conference Final after dispatching the Prince Albert Raiders in five games in Round 1 and then sweeping the Red Deer Rebels in the second round.

Saskatoon finished the regular season with the WHL’s best record of 50-13-5, three points ahead of the Prince George Cougars.

Ducks prospect Yegor Sidorov has been a goal-scoring machine for the Blades this season, leading the team with 50 goals to go along with his 88 points. In the playoffs, the 6-foot winger continued his pace, registering 10 goals and 14 points in nine games, including six goals against the Rebels.

“He’s an elite goal scorer and he only needs one chance to put the puck in the back of the net,” said Button. “He’s got skill, knows he can score, and dares opponents to try and stop him.

“If you have a game where he only has two shots with one goal, you better mark it as a victory.”

Also stepping up against the Rebels was the play of Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brandon Lisowsky, who recorded three goals and eight points in the series.

The 5-foot-9 winger finished third on the team in scoring in the regular season with 42 goals and 80 points and has added four goals and 11 points in nine playoff games.

“Lisowsky is a similar type of player to [Montreal Canadiens forward] Brendan Gallagher,” said Button. “He plays with edge, determination and he’s tenacious and doesn’t give up. He’s hungry around the net, along the boards, and in the fight for the puck.”

Two of the biggest additions to the Blades this season was getting centre Fraser Minten from the Kamloops Blazers in November and adding Washington Capitals prospect Alexander Suzdalev out of Sweden at the start of the new year.

Minten recorded 19 goals and 38 points in 36 regular season games in Saskatoon, while adding five goals and 10 points in nine playoff games. The 6-foot-1 forward was instrumental in their sweep against the Rebels, recording four goals and six points.

The Vancouver native appeared in four games in the NHL with the Maple Leafs to begin this season and his leadership capabilities were on full display as he took over the captaincy of Team Canada at the 2024 World Juniors.

“If Minten can be what Adam Lowry is for the Winnipeg Jets, then the Maple Leafs have a heck of a player,” said Button. “He’s a determined, competitive player that dares opponents to stop him. I don’t see as much of a high-end offensive capability in his game but, like Lowry, he’s a massive contributor.”

Saskatoon acquired Suzdalev’s rights from the Regina Pats on New Year’s Day in a blockbuster deal that saw defencemen Samuel Barcik, Dayton Deschamps, forward Zach Moore, and three draft picks go the other way.

Suzdalev began the season with Mora IK of HockeyAllsvenskan in Sweden where he recorded two goals and three points in 13 games. After not getting the playing time he needed in Sweden, the Capitals were able to secure his release from the club and send him to the WHL shortly after the Blades acquired his rights.

“He was a top player [in the WHL] last season in Regina, but he was floundering in Sweden this year because he wasn’t quite ready to play at that level,” said Button. “The Blades knew him very well after watching him play for their divisional rivals last season and faced off against him in the playoffs.

“In Saskatoon he doesn’t have to be ‘the guy.’ He can just be a guy who adds to the scoring depth.”

Since joining the Blades, the 6-foot-3 winger recorded nine goals and 25 points in 30 regular-season games. He added three goals and seven points in nine playoff games, including two goals and six points in the team’s first round win over the Raiders.

The Blades await the winner of the Moose Jaw Warriors-Swift Current Bronco series as their opponent for the Eastern Conference Final.

WHL Playoffs Round 2:

Eastern Conference:

(1) Saskatoon Blades beat (5) Red Deer Rebels 4-0
(3) Moose Jaw Warriors lead (2) Swift Current Broncos 3-1

Western Conference:

(1) Prince George Cougars lead (5) Kelowna Rockets 3-1
(2) Portland Winterhawks lead (3) Everett Silvertips 3-0

Tigres have stranglehold over Huskies

The Victoriaville Tigres hold a 3-1 series advantage over the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and have a chance to wrap it up in Game 5 on Friday to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

This series was originally billed as a battle between two of the best goaltenders in the QMJHL with last year’s CHL Goaltender of the Year Nathan Darveau playing for Victoriaville and this season’s GAA leader William Rousseau in Rouyn-Noranda’s net.

However, the Tigres found a way to get to Rousseau early and often, scoring 19 goals through four games.

“The bottom line is that Victoriaville got right after Rousseau and by doing so, they created doubt [in Rouyn-Noranda],” said Button. “Rouyn-Noranda has not been able to establish their game from the get-go and have had to chase to catch up.”

Leading the way offensively for Victoriaville has been the play of captain Maxime Pellerin, who has six goals and nine points in this series.

The 6-foot winger finished third in team scoring in the regular season with 30 goals and 79 points and is currently tied for fourth in the league in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 15 points.

“Playoffs are revealing for players, it’s not the end story if you have or haven’t had success in the past,” said Button. “It reveals what players can do [now], and what they need to do to be better.

“What Pellerin has learned is that he can be a good player against any team.”

Also stepping up for the Tigres has been the play of winger Justin Gendron, who has four goals and seven points against the Huskies. The 6-foot-2 winger recorded 16 goals and 38 points in the regular season, and he is eligible for this year’s NHL Draft.

“Gendron is showcasing himself to NHL scouts, trying to show that he’s worth of being drafted and to keep an eye on him,” said Button. “He has ability and potential to develop buy he has to continue to show elements of his game to scouts that will build confidence that he’s player worthy of developing.”

Rouyn-Noranda was second in the QMJHL in scoring during the regular season with 301 goals and while their scoring touch hasn’t dissipated in this series, they haven’t been able to keep up with Victoriaville.

Andrei Loshko has led the way for the Huskies, scoring three goals and seven points so far this series and five goals and 10 points in the playoffs. Meanwhile, QMJHL regular season scoring champion Antonin Verreault has failed to score a goal against the Tigres but has added five assists.

The winner of this series will take on the winners between the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Sherbrooke Phoenix in the Western Conference Final. The Voltigeurs lead the series 3-1 and have a chance to end it on Friday.

QMJHL Playoffs Round 2:

Eastern Conference:

(1) Baie-Comeau Drakkar beat (7) Acadie-Bathurst Titan 4-0
(4) Cape Breton Eagles beat (6) Chicoutimi Sagueneens 4-0

Western Conference:

(1) Drummondville Voltigeurs lead (4) Sherbrooke Phoenix 3-1
(3) Victoriaville Tigres lead (2) Rouyn-Noranda Huskies 3-1