#4 Buffalo Junior Sabres season record: 33-17-1-3 (70 points)
Leading scorer vs. North York: Tim Nicksic (4 goals, 6 points), Zach Evancho (2 goals, 6 points)
Goaltenders: Tucker Weppner, 20-15-1, .900 save percentage; Brian Kowalski, 13-5-0, .884 save percentage
#5 North York Rangers season record: 30-16-2-6 (68 points)
Leading scorer vs. Buffalo: Ted Hunt (5 goals, 7 points), Keegan Blasby (3 goals, 7 points)
Goaltenders: Gianluca Baggetta, 15-9-1, .916 save percentage; Jeremie Lintner, 12-3-1, .932 save percentage
Head-to-head record: Buffalo won all four
How Buffalo wins: Coach John Tucker’s Jr. Sabres have a barrel-full of underrated offensive weapons, with a defence-corps that loves to aggressively jump in and join in on the production. On the surface it seems – and it certainly is a very real possibility to transpire – that the crucial matchup is whether the Buffalo power play can take advantage of the fact that the club draws a staggering amount more man advantages than any other team in the league (to the tune of 53 more than the second-place club in the regular season in that category).
Beyond that, the Jr. Sabres win when Zach Evancho is Zach Evancho: a dominant, puck possessing, point-producing machine that could very easily be the MVP of the league. The depth behind him is also very good, with Tim Nicksic and the impressive talents of the 17-year-old Chris Berger providing the main impetus of what makes it tough to keep the puck out of the net vs. the only American club in the OJHL (only Burlington scored more goals in the Southwest Conference than the 233 that Buffalo compiled).
The monstrous Wilson Vershay and the crafty Evan Bennett lead a deep and experienced D-corps with a lot of different roles, with Aaron Reinig and Ryan Wheeler as dangerous as forwards whenever they are on the ice.
Finally, Buffalo wins if they are the ones getting North York off its game. Tucker’s boys are a bit of a throwback in terms of compete-level, in terms of having a bunch of players that could be described as ‘pests’ (meant in a complimentary way), and they do that job very well.
How North York wins: Coach Brent Hughes could have the best one-two punch in goaltenders in the league, and if Gianluca Baggetta or Jeremie Lintner play as well, and as focussed, as they are capable, then North York has a great chance to win.
The Rangers are a veteran-laden squad with talent on all four lines and three D-pairings, and while full health has come only rarely to the group, they have proven to be impressive and an extremely difficult out for anyone on their day.
As impressive as deadline acquisition Chris Sekelyk has been, along with his line of the monstrous rookie Grayden Gottschalk, and the speedy, hard-working veteran Michael Morgan, North York takes on an whole new dimension when the multi-talented, yet mercurial, presences of Keegan Blasby and Ted Hunt play like they can. The power forward Blasby has the skill and strength to take over a game whenever he seems to want to; while Hunt is a crafty offensive producer, and has done very well against the Jr. Sabres over his long career.
Real hockey fans will love the line of Nick Zanette, Louis Kereakou, and Kyle Clarke: they all play with an edge, with passion, and with a fanatical compete level. When they are all in the line-up, they are all-but guaranteed to stay together five-on-five.
On the back end, Hughes and company have compiled a remarkable group of character, with loads of grit and more-than enough puck carrying/moving ability. The skilful and creative Tyler Currie played the best hockey of his career in the playoffs last season en route to his second-straight Buckland Cup championship, while there is no part of the game at which both captain Jeremy Szabo, and deadline acquisition Shawn Tessier are incapable of being elite. Currie has also had experience as a shutdown guy in the past.
Lastly, North York will win if they maintain the killer instinct over 60 minutes. A couple of times this year they were in a good position against the Sabres, only to let leads and games slip away. Regaining the crispness that made their Currie-quarterbacked power play so deadly at times this year will be crucial in that regard.
Buffalo question marks: Can starter Tucker Weppner make enough stops behind a team defence that has been porous at times this year? Can the Jr. Sabres as a group keep their own heads, as they had the most penalty minutes in the entire OJHL? Can they keep the dangerous North York power play at bay, since Buffalo only managed the 19th-best penalty kill in the 22-team league?
North York question marks: Can the Rangers keep their collective cool in a difficult place to play at the HarborCenter in Buffalo? Can North York match the intensity of the Jr. Sabres over the course of a best-of-seven series? Will North York’s power play wake up in time to take advantage of the physical Jr. Sabres, as the once lethal Ranger man-advantage went AWOL near the end of the regular season?