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Catching the Torch: All nine Habs prospects heading to the CHL playoffs

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In this week’s prospect report, nine Habs prospects are gearing up for the playoffs. Here’s what to expect.

Peterborough Petes v Windsor Spitfires Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

The Canadian Hockey League playoffs begin this Friday! All nine of the Montreal Canadiens’ CHL prospects are headed to the playoffs, including a head-to-head matchup between Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Mete as rivals London Knights and Windsor Spitfires do battle.

From the QMJHL, Simon Bourque will face his former team as Saint John begins their quest for the Memorial Cup. Out west, both Matt Bradley and Noah Juulsen enter the playoffs on top teams.

Here are previews of each playoff series, with regular CTT programming following.

OHL

Kingston Frontenacs (4) vs. Will Bitten’s Hamilton Bulldogs (5)

One point was all that separated these two teams after the regular season. Despite scoring the fewest goals in the OHL (179) and owning a 46.76 goals-for percentage, Kingston is one of the league’s best power-play teams. Eemeli Rasanen and Stephen Desrocher — the team’s top two blue-line scorers — sit fifth and sixth, respectively, in OHL PP defender scoring. In fact, both players produce substantially more with the man advantage, with draft-eligible Rasanen having more than triple the amount of PP points than even-strength points.

Draft-eligible forward Jason Robertson is the team’s only player above a point-per-game rate, with 81 points in 68 games. He has brought his game to the next level in the last month, averaging a goal, 2.08 points, and five shots on goal per game.

While Hamilton lacks a Jason Robertson, they have two game-changers in Matt Luff, and, of course, Will Bitten. Hamilton won the season series 3-2-1, but the most recent went Kingston’s way. Hamilton has been slightly above average all season in estimated possession metrics, goals-, and shots-for percentage. In the season series, Bitten had three goals in five games.

Kingston lives-and-dies on the PP, but Hamilton finds success as a deep, four-line team. They possess 14 20-point scorers: third most in the OHL and tied with the Erie Otters and Owen Sound Attack. While they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, this is a team with far more offensive ability than they have shown.

Bitten is still searching for that elusive first breakaway goal, but has found a home as a net-front presence. Getting Bitten going and generating more counter-attack chances could unlock the offensive potential just in time.

Michael McNiven’s Owen Sound Attack (3) vs. Kitchener Rangers (6)

Owen Sound enters the playoffs as the hottest team in the OHL, going 11-0-1 in their last 12 games. They are second in both GF% (62.5) and estimated Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) close percentage (58.94%), and first in high-danger-shots-for percentage (63.3%). They are one of the most creative teams in the OHL, as they love to stretch offensively and use the full width of the ice to confuse defending teams.

The all-draft-eligible (although, Hancock is a re-entry) top line of Jonah Gadjovich - Nick Suzuki - Kevin Hancock combined for 255 points this season, and none of them led the team in scoring. That distinction belongs to Petrus Palmu, a Canadiens 2016 Development Camp invitee, who is arguably the best long-distance shooter in the entire league. And their depth scoring is some of the best in the OHL.

Owen Sound Attack v Windsor Spitfires Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

Owen Sound features a solid blue line featuring a combination of speed, skill, and physicality. Unlike most junior teams, the club plays a structured defensive game featuring intense back pressure and swarming that forces uncontrolled entries.

And if a team manages to solve that, they still have to deal with Michael McNiven, arguably the OHL’s best goaltender and possibly the most valuable player in the OHL. McNiven is 33-4-3 with a .914 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average in his last 40 games. Although he had some struggles tracking the puck (most evident in his glove hand), he still finished the season on a seven-game win streak.

There’s no doubt that five sub-0.900 games was a disappointing way to finish the season, especially because it caused McNiven to stumble to third in the OHL in save percentage. With that said, he’s behind a high-powered offence and can get back on track against Kitchener, a team that he is 7-0-0 against with a .918 Sv% and 1.89 GAA.

Victor Mete’s London Knights (4) vs. Mikhail Sergachev & Jeremiah Addison’s Windsor Spitfires (5)

A London loss to Sault Ste. Marie on Sunday lodged London in fourth, instead of Owen Sound; a much more favourable matchup for Windsor (WSR vs. LDN: 3-2-1; vs. OS: 0-3-1).

This matchup is almost as close as close can be. London is third in GF%, Windsor fifth. London sits eighth in Est. FC%, Windsor ninth. Both teams scored 17 goals against one another in the season series. The last two meetings have been 4-1 wins—one for London, one for Windsor.

In London’s 4-1 victory, Windsor dominated the third period, but were unable to score. They turned that into a dominant 4-1 victory two weeks later, featuring a third period in which Windsor outshot London 20-3. It was arguably the best performance of Windsor’s season, but they were never able to turn it into long-term success.

Where London finds success is in quick-strike offence. They lead the OHL with 16 20-point scorers, and the fourth line features two 30-point scorers, including Alex Formenton (draft eligible). They made three huge deadline additions, bringing in Mitchell Stephens, Mitchell Vande Sompel, and Dante Salituro.

Stephens has been as advertised, but Vande Sompel’s blue-line offence has dried up (1.00 P/GP with Oshawa, 0.53 with London) and he has been tried at forward. Salituro was one of the OHL’s best players last season, but has only scored at a 0.73 clip since returning from professional hockey to play his over-age season. They’ll need to get these players going if they want to go deep.

Windsor, the Memorial Cup host, is an inconsistent, injury-ravaged team. Logan Brown has battled injuries all season, Gabriel Vilardi (a top draft-eligible player) missed significant time, and Logan Stanley is recovering from surgery. Some of the team’s big additions early on, like Graham Knott, Julius Nättinen, and Canadiens prospect Jeremiah Addison haven’t lived up to initial promise. Jeremy Bracco-, the team’s biggest addition, has been playing incredibly these past few weeks after a lengthy adjustment curve.

The Canadiens prospects in this series have all had interesting seasons. Jeremiah Addison comes into the playoffs with just two points in his last nine games, and overall sits below a point-per-game average. Disappointing totals for the over-age co-captain vying for an NHL contract.

Victor Mete has emerged as the Knights’ number-one defender. He sits second among all OHL defenders in goals per game (0.31) and third in primary points per game (0.62). His solid defensive play and pace-pushing offence have combined for some spectacular results.

Finally, Mikhail Sergachev took a benching against Sarnia and turned it into a strong late-season push. In a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Owen Sound, Sergachev was the best Spitfire, and consistently created chances every shift, despite the insurmountable lead. He tied last season’s even-strength goal total with nine in 17 fewer games, set a career high in shots, and led all OHL defenders in even-strength primary points per game (0.45).

There’s a lot riding on this matchup for both teams. London made the huge additions looking to repeat last season’s Memorial Cup victory, while Windsor — the Memorial Cup hosts — are looking to make it on merit with a league title.

Oshawa Generals (3) vs. Michael Pezzetta’s Sudbury Wolves (6)

The final game of the OHL regular season was a matchup between Sudbury and Mississauga. Sudbury won, and therefore got a more favourable matchup in Oshawa.

The season series was tied a two wins a piece, but all four games took place before Oshawa traded away their number one centre and defenceman. Of course, this is still a matchup in Oshawa’s favour.

Sudbury is led by Dmitry Sokolov—a 48-goal scorer and shooting machine. Macauley Carson, David Levin, and Ryan Valentini add secondary scoring punch to an otherwise grit-filled roster.

For Michael Pezzetta, this is a chance to close the season out on a high note. With just 19 points in 54 games, Pezzetta’s offence regressed this season. There hasn’t been any notable progression in his game, and in fact his performance has been underwhelming save for a few decent stretches here and there.

QMJHL

Simon Bourque’s Saint John Sea Dogs (1) vs. Rimouski Océanic (16)

Simon Bourque will face his old team, Rimouski, in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs. As the number-one seed, Saint John is the clear favourite.

Saint John led the league in points, Est. FC%, GF%, SF%, PK%, and PP%. They also enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the QMJHL. They boast 11 40-point scorers — three of which are defencemen.

On the other hand, Rimouski has plummeted since trading Bourque, and finished with just two wins in their last 10 games. Tyler Boland, the QMJHL’s second-leading scorer, brings the only real firepower Rimouski owns. Boland’s 48 goals led the team by 28, his 103 points by 27.

Essentially, look for Saint John to make short work of Rimouski.

Since the trade, Bourque has consistently performed. He’s become more confident handling the puck, while also maintaining his strong defensive play. His production splits are virtually identical between Rimouski and Saint John, despite the massive disparity in team strength.

WHL

Matt Bradley’s Medicine Hat Tigers (1) vs. Brandon Wheat Kings (Wild Card)

Medicine Hat enters the playoffs on fire, with wins in eight of their last 10 and 5.2 goals per game over that stretch. Medicine Hat finished first in the WHL in Est. FC% and second in SF% and GF%. A staggering 350 goals over 72 games were just three back of the Regina Pats’ WHL-leading 353.

The offence features a 103-point scorer in Chad Butcher, a 94-point scorer in Mason Shaw, and an 88-point scorer in Steven Owre. It also boasts tremendous depth, with 10 20-goal scorers (most in the WHL), five 30-goal scorers, and 11 players with at least 47 points.

Where Medicine Hat struggles is on defence. They finished in the middle of the table in goals allowed, and own the fifth-worst save percentage in the league. Nick Schneider lost the starting job following the acquisition of Michael Bullion, but neither goaltender sits above the .900 Sv% mark.

Meanwhile, Brandon is sputtering into the post-season. With just three wins in their last 10, and inconsistent late-season play from top draft prospect Nolan Patrick and leading scorer Reid Duke, this could be a quick series. Medicine Hat also won three of the four matchups in the regular season.

Matt Bradley was suspended for the final game of the season following a spearing incident. He finished the season top-12 in even-strength goals per game played (0.39). He produced consistently down the stretch (44 points in 37 games), but never took his offence to the next level.

He’s still vying for an NHL contract, and the strength of his playoffs could play a role in the Canadiens’ decision.

Noah Juulsen’s Everett Silvertips (1) vs. Victoria Royals (Wild Card)

This feel like the year that Everett could finally go all the way. Everett has never missed the playoffs, but also has never won it all. For the second time in three years, they finished first in the U.S. Division, and for the second time ever, hit 100 points.

Along the way, Everett took down the two best offences in the league in a pair of clinical displays. They posted winning records against all of the top teams in the Western Conference, except for Seattle; Everett won just three of 10 meetings between the two teams, and they will almost certainly clash in the Division Finals.

Although Everett won the season series 4-0-0 and outscored them 14-6, Victoria’s Matthew Phillips is one of the deadliest players in the WHL. With 50 goals and 40 assists, expect Noah Juulsen and Lukas Skrumeda to draw the matchup. With just one point in four regular-season games, so far Juulsen has done an excellent job against Philips. Furthermore, Juulsen has racked up three goals and two assists in those contests himself.

Everett’s strengths are puck possession and full-team defence. They dominate the puck, but are often hesitant to shoot. Of 22 teams, they sit 15 in shots for, but have given up the fewest. Kevin Constantine’s ‘Tips are always defence- and cycle-oriented, but have found firepower in Patrik Bajkov and Dominic Zwerger. Carter Hart put up another stellar season and could repeat as WHL Goaltender of the Year.

Stats courtesy of: Prospect-Stats.com

Highlights

It may have been a quiet week for Mikhail Sergachev production-wise, but his overall game was quite good. Owen Sound demolished Windsor 6-1, but Sergachev kept creating chances. He used his explosive speed, soft hands, and booming shot to generate opportunities, and make an impact defensively. Benched a few weeks ago for a lack of discipline, Sergachev turned a blind eye as Jacob Friend (note: he’s not friendly) targeted Sergachev, and drew a penalty in the process.

Here’s a sample of what Sergachev did in the game. He draws in four defenders, then takes one extra stride to create a clear passing lane to Jeremy Bracco:

Will Bitten grabbed three points in three games, including a two-goal performance against Kingston:

NCAA/USHL Highlights

Jake Evans and Notre Dame were shut down by UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals. Evans did not have a good game, as he struggled with puck control and was unable to generate offence. Notre Dame will begin the NCAA Tournament against Minnesota: a must-win game for their season to continue.

AHL Highlights

Ryan Johnston has failed to live up to his early promise in the Canadiens organization. This season, Johnston’s lack of speed and defensive acumen have greatly inhibited his offensive traits. He’s a slippery defender, but often skates himself out of trouble only to go right back into it.

Surprisingly solid on his skates, Johnston wins battles and protects the slot fairly well. However, he’s prone to giveaways in his own zone, typically with careless breakout passes. It’s not so much defending that he struggles with, but rather transitioning the puck.

There hasn’t been notable improvement in his game this season, but he has flashes of the early promise, such as his goal from this week:

Goalies

Hayden Hawkey’s season isn’t over yet. Providence made it to the NCAA Tournament, which begins on Friday.

The IceCaps’ MVP, Charlie Lindgren, put in a pair of incredible performances this weekend. He stopped 58 of 60 shots faced. The IceCaps are currently in the last playoff spot in the North Division, with Utica just one point back. While the IceCaps had been on fire lately (four straight wins after Saturday), largely thanks to Lindgren, Utica has been even better with wins in eight of their last 10.

As mentioned earlier, Michael McNiven has endured a bit of a late-season rut. However, he did tally an impressive performance against Windsor. As per usual, McNiven handled the puck a ton, and did a great job stifling Windsor’s uncontrolled entries. He went lengthy periods without seeing much action, but made a key stop on a breakaway.