(Photo Via: Hamilton Bulldogs)

SAULT STE. MARIE – The 2018 Ontario Hockey League Championship Series will feature the top two teams in their respective conferences this season. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds finished in first place in the Western Conference, as well as the OHL, and the Hamilton Bulldogs were the top ranked team in the Eastern Conference this regular season.

The Hamilton Bulldogs have only had to play 15 games in the post season this year. Through three rounds, the Bulldogs are 12-2-1, losing just a single game in each series.

On the other side, the top ranked Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds haven’t had it so easy. After sweeping Saginaw in the first round, the Greyhounds ran into some trouble with the Owen Sound Attack. Owen Sound pushed the series to a seventh game, but the Greyhounds were able to outscore the Attack in the series clinching game, 9-7 was the final.

The Greyhounds then had to face another daunting task, the Kitchener Rangers. After taking a 2-0 series lead at home, the Greyhounds dropped both road games at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, and they were all squared at 2-2 with three games to play. The Greyhounds came out firing in Game 5, and won the contest 7-3 to take a 3-2 series lead, with an opportunity to book their ticket to the OHL Finals in Game 6. Game 6 in Kitchener went to overtime where Kole Sherwood played the hero for the Rangers, and once again, Sault Ste. Marie was on the brink of elimination facing another Game 7. The game went to double overtime, and it was Jack Kopacka, who had 3 goals and 1 assist in the 7-3 Game 5 win over Kitchener, who was the hero in Sault Ste. Marie.

At the beginning of the playoffs, had you been told that the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were going to play for a spot at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, you would probably agree. Had you been told that one team had to play in two Game 7’s to get there, you’d probably assume it would be Hamilton.

So now let’s get to the head to head matchup. The two teams squared off just twice in the regular season in 2017-2018. The first game was played on February 11th, 2018, at the FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, where the Bulldogs came away with a 5-2 victory. The Bulldogs controlled most of the play, and exploded for four goals in the 2nd period to cruise to the 5-2 victory.

The other match between these two teams went the other, by a large margin. Sault Ste. Marie won the game 10-0 over Hamilton. That game took place just a week after the 5-2 Bulldogs victory. 14 different Greyhounds had points in the game. Ryan Roth, Tim Gettinger, Taylor Raddysh, Mac Hollowell, and Noah Carroll all had 1 goal in the game. Morgan Frost had two goals and an assist in the contest, and Hayden Verbeek had a hat trick and an assist, leading the charge offensively for the Soo.

Unfortunately for the Greyhounds, overage forward Hayden Verbeek suffered a broken wrist in Game 2 of the OHL Western Conference Final against the Kitchener Rangers and is out indefinitely.

Each of these teams won their home contest in the regular season, and these playoffs have shown that home ice advantage is key. Sault Ste. Marie is 9-1-0 in the post-season at the Essar Centre in the Soo, but are just 3-4-1 away from home in the playoffs.

The Hamilton Bulldogs are 8-1-0 at home in the playoffs, making them 4-2-0 on the road. While Hamilton hasn’t played the quantity of games that the Soo have, they know what they need to do to win the series, win a game on the road. As simple as it sounds, winning games at the Essar Centre proved to be one of the most difficult tasks in the OHL this season.

In the regular season, Sault Ste. Marie was 31-1-2 at home. The lone regulation loss was a 7-4 loss to the Oshawa Generals on September 23rd, which was the first game of the season for the Greyhounds. The two overtime losses came against Ottawa, a 5-4 loss on October 15th, and Flint, a 4-3 loss on March 16th.

In the playoffs, the Greyhounds lone home loss was in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semi-Final against the Owen Sound Attack when the fell 4-1. That was the lone time this season where the Greyhounds had been held to less than 3 goals while playing in front of their home crowd.

Hamilton will also need to protect home ice in this series. The Bulldogs were 22-9-3 at home in the 2017-2018 regular season. Their lone playoff loss at the FirstOntario Centre was in Game 2 of the opening round when they lost 5-4 to the Ottawa 67’s.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Sault Ste. Marie:

#12 – F – Boris Katchouk: Katchouck has 15 goals and 13 assists so far in the playoffs. He scored twice and added an assist in Game 7 against Kitchener to help his team advance to the OHL Championship Series. In 18 games in the post-season this year, Katchouk has points in 14 of those games. He was held pointless in Games 2 & 3 against Owen Sound, Game 3 against Kitchener (The Soo was shutout, 3-0), and Game 6 against Kitchener.

#14 – F – Taylor Raddysh: Raddysh, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Erie, brings a lot to the table for the Greyhounds. Raddysh won the OHL Championship last season with the Erie Otters, and played in the Memorial Cup Final last year. He is 2nd on his team in playoff scoring with 12 goals, 15 assists for 27 points.

#16 – F – Morgan Frost: Frost was a first round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017, and has been proving his worth in the 2018 playoffs. Frost has 7 goals and 15 assists for 22 points in these playoffs. Frost had a goal and two assists in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. In the Western Conference Finals, Frost went on a 3-game pointless streak where he was a combined -5 in those games. He did bounce back for an assist in game 6. He’ll need to be going for Sault Ste. Marie in the championship series.

#31 – G – Matthew Villalta: The home and away records rest with how the goaltending is for Sault Ste. Marie. While Villalta hasn’t been stellar in the playoffs, he’s gotten the job done. But now that there are only 7 teams left (Regina counts), Villalta has to be the best goalie in order for Sault Ste. Marie to not only win an OHL Championship, but a Memorial Cup.

Hamilton Bulldogs:

#27 – F – Robert Thomas: Thomas was acquired by the Bulldogs from the London Knights for Hamilton’s playoff run. The 2017 St. Louis Blues first round pick (20th overall) only had one goal in the Eastern Conference Final, but added 8 asissts for his team. Thomas has 7 goals, 17 assists, and 24 points in the 2018 playoffs. He’ll need to be a difference maker for Hamilton in this series.

#18 – F – Matthew Strome: Strome was more than a point per game player this season for Hamilton. He had 37 goals, 31 assists for 68 points in the regular season in 65 games played. Strome has just four goals in the post-season this year, but it hasn’t drastically affected the Bulldogs. In the Eastern Conference Final, Strome was held to just a single point, an assist in Game 4, and was -1 in the series.

#17 – F –  Brandon Saigeon: Saigeon has been the leading goal scorer for the Bulldogs in in the 2018 playoffs. 12 goals, 4 assists, for 16 points in the playoffs has been no surprise for Bulldogs fans. 35 goals and 35 assists in the regular season for Saigeon had him poised for a strong playoff. Saigeon scored four goals in the Eastern Conference Finals against Kingston, including 2 goals (and an assist) in Game 1 of the series.

#33 – G – Kaden Fulcher: Fulcher has been solid in net for the Bulldogs. A 2.35 GAA and a 0.911 SV% in the post-season has backstopped his team to a 12-2-1 record. While Hamilton has had a nice rest, Fulcher will have his toughest test yet. Much like Mario Culina for Kitchener, Fulcher will need to be the best player on the Bulldogs team for every game of this series in order to beat the Greyhounds.

SERIES SCHEDULE:

Game 1 – Thursday, May 3rd, 2018 – Hamilton @ Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 – Essar Centre

Game 2 – Saturday, May 5th, 2018 – Hamilton @ Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 – Essar Centre

Game 3 – Monday, May 7th, 2018 – Sault Ste. Marie @ Hamilton – 7:00 – FirstOntario Centre

Game 4 – Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 – Sault Ste. Marie @ Hamilton – 7:00 – FirstOntario Centre

Game 5 – Friday, May 11th, 2018 – Hamilton @ Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 – Essar Centre

Game 6 – Sunday, May 13th, 2018 – Sault Ste. Marie @ Hamilton – 2:00 – FirstOntario Centre

Game 7 – Monday, May 14 th, 2018 – Hamilton @ Sault Ste. Marie – 7:07 – Essar Centre

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