Thursday March 17, 2016
It's no secret who the OHL's hottest teams are entering the final weekend of the 2015-16 season.
The Western Conference-leading London Knights are winners of eight straight following a Wednesday night win over the Flint Firebirds while the recently crowned regular season Eastern Conference Champion Kingston Frontenacs have taken wins in eight of their last ten, capping off what's been a record-breaking season.
Beginning in the West, the London Knights reached the 50-win plateau for the third time in the last ten years on Wednesday, a figure that becomes considerably more impressive when one factors in the four different 49-win seasons in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014 that the franchise has put together.
Neck-and-neck with the Erie Otters for the Midwest Division crown entering a weekend home-and-home set with Dylan Strome and company, the Knights are entering the encounter at the top of their game.
"We’re just playing great hockey right now," Knights goaltender Tyler Parsons told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press on Wednesday. "Everyone’s doing the job and it’s showing on the scoreboard."
Parsons can be credited for London's ascent up the Midwest Division standings. The 18-year-old has played to a 17-5-0-0 record since January 1st and has earned victories in his last ten straight decisions. He leads the OHL in goals-against average (2.30), save percentage (.922) and is second in wins (36).
“His work ethic is outstanding," said Knights head coach Dale Hunter. "He’s the hardest worker in practice and he really wants to be a player. Ask his teammates. On every rebound, he’s playing it all out.
While Parsons has drawn comparisons from Hunter to 2012 CHL Goaltender of the Year and OHL Champion Michael Houser, his teammates have taken notice as well.
"He’s taking it to another level," Knights defenceman Olli Juolevi told Pyette. "He’s winning games for us right now. I really enjoy playing in front of him."
The Knights are in the hunt for their first Midwest Division title since 2013, the same year they won their last OHL championship on Bo Horvat's buzzer-beating game seven winner against the Barrie Colts.
The Knights and Otters square off on Friday in London before wrapping up the season in Erie on Saturday. The two clubs have split their season series with two wins apiece to this point.
While the Knights continue to battle for the conference crown, the Kingston Frontenacs have wrapped things up in the East.
Playing to a 44-16-3-2 mark through 65 games, the Frontenacs have essentially re-written their record books with new franchise marks in wins, points and are well on their way to besting the 2014-15 figure of 197 goals-against.
Sophomore head coach Paul McFarland has led his club to the franchise's first East Division title since 1995.
"Every player should be excited on what we’ve done and know that there is a lot more to do,” he told the Kingston Whig-Standard's Doug Graham. "We as a group are excited to finish first in the regular season. Let’s be honest, though. We all know there is a lot more to do here."
With sights set firmly on the future, the Frontenacs now try and tackle the hard truth that the franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 1998, a Fronts team that included such pro hockey identities as Matt Bradley, Mike Zigomanis, Jan Bulis and scrappy winger Matt Cooke.
While the 2015-16 Fronts are fuelled offensively by prominent NHL prospects in Lawson Crouse (Florida Panthers), Michael Dal Colle (New York Islanders) and Roland McKeown (Carolina Hurricanes), their most dangerous offensive asset may come in the form of Los Angeles Kings seventh rounder Spencer Watson. The 5'9", 170Ib. winger is the first Fronts 40-goal scorer since 2007 while also leading the OHL in shots on goal (346) by an overwhelming margin.
Like London, Kingston has strength in the crease with 2015 OHL Goaltender of the Year Lucas Peressini being joined by the OHL's Goaltender of the Month for February Jeremy Helvig.
The 18-year-old Helvig has gone 11-1-0-1 since January 1st to push the incumbent Peressini for time in the crease down the stretch. Two quality goaltenders is a good problem to have entering the playoffs though as the Frontenacs try and put their 2014 first round collapse permanently in their rearview mirror.
The Knights and Frontenacs enter the final weekend of the 2015-16 season as hot as any team in the country, with both clubs making the latest edition of the BMO CHL Top-10 Rankings.
London and Kingston will be teams to watch in the weeks to come.