Ivan Fabjan of the Milton Menace battles for position in the crease with  Burlington Cougar Nikola Murgic in front of Burlington goaltender Kyle Metson during a late-season game. The two teams meet in the first round of the Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs beginning Friday night in Milton. “It’s always a good atmosphere in the rink when we play against each other,” said Burlington head coach Mark Jooris. (Photo by Michelle Malvaso / OJHL Images)

By Ron Valentine

After a very competitive 56-game regular season in the Ontario Junior Hockey League it’s now time for some playoff action.

The big question in the West Conference: can anyone knock off the Collingwood Blues? The defending OJHL playoff champs, who cruised to this season’s regular season crown, are the top-ranked team in the Canadian Junior Hockey League this week.

Check out the brackets here:

Here is a look at the four first-round match-ups:

COLLINGWOOD BLUES (1st place – 49 wins, 6 losses and one overtime loss for 99 points) versus BRANTFORD 99ers (8th place – 26-26-0-4). The Blues, defending Buckland Cup champions, have dominated each of the four regular season meetings between the two clubs posting wins by 4-2, 7-2, 9-1 and 4-2. Ranked number one nationwide, the Blues swept past everyone, losing in just six in regulation and one overtime game. The 99ers, on the heels of a five-win season in 2022-23, have made a major comeback and have forced themselves into postseason action.

Seventeen different players reached or surpassed the 20-point mark for the Blues with seven of those scoring 20 goals or more, led by Spencer Young who tallied 39 including a league-high eight shorthanded. Club captain Dylan Hudon led the way in points with 73, one more than Young. Calum Chau’s 54 points from the blueline gave him a tie for third spot in the league overall and in net Noah Pak recorded 12 shutouts and a meagre 1.30 goals against average in 42 games and backup Colton Drillen-Roach weighed in with a 2.01 GAA in his 16 appearances. The team had a +196 goal differential.

Blues’ head coach Andrew Campoli on the upcoming series: “Our team is looking forward to getting the playoffs started at home this Friday. Brantford has done a great job this year, they have been playing the right way. We understand that to get the results we want we need to execute our game plan and be disciplined in all areas.”

After a long battle, the 99ers overtook the youthful Toronto Patriots to grab the final playoff spot. Evin Kojokaro blossomed this season with the 99ers and led the team in goals with 41 including a league-leading 12 game winners. After being traded from Georgetown, Aaron Andrade recorded 10 goals and 30 points in 17 appearances. Also reaching the 50-point mark was Garrett McCabe who ended on 51.

Brantford head coach Mark Joslin: “With the No. 1 ranked team in Canada as our opposition we know we will be in tough. Collingwood is a very good hockey team with a ton of depth and great goaltending. We need to stay disciplined and play within our structure that has made us successful throughout the year and got us into the playoffs. We also need to weather the storm early in the series and hopefully our players can feed off the atmosphere that the great fans in Collingwood will bring.”

MILTON MENACE (2nd place – 41-12-2-1 for 85 points) versus BURLINGTON COUGARS (7th place – 29-20-1-6 for 65 points). The clubs split their regular season contests with Milton winning 4-3 in their first meeting and 6-1 on the last day of the season. In between the Cougars took the games 5-2 and 4-3. Captain Connor Driscoll put up big numbers with an 83-point season including 28 goals, good for eighth in the OJHL. In net workhorse Glen Crandall played 37 games winning 25 and posting three shutouts. Aidan Puley rode a strong second half of the season to a 66- point campaign overall. He had 13 powerplay goals and eight game winners. Ivan Fabjan had 14 with the extra man en route to a 59 point season. On the blueline, Graeme MacAuley had 44 points and Owen Kindree 39. The Menace spent most of the season in second place but were unable to gain ground on the Collingwood Blues.

Dan Del Monte, in his fifth season as bench boss of the Menace, is ready: “In Milton, we’re happy and excited to be starting the playoffs. This is what we have been working towards since August. We feel confident in our team, but we also know that every game will be a battle.”

For the Cougars, Justin Legault was the top scorer with 30 goals and 61 points. Eric Bertelsen posted 55 and Carter Real, obtained at the trade deadline, had 54 overall. Rookie Alexander Stephen was the leading defenceman with 40 points while captain Jacob Bramwell had 31. Kyle Metson shouldered the lion’s share of the goalkeeping load with 42 games played. The club struggled early in September, losing seven in a row including five straight overtime losses. but moved into a playoff position as the season progressed.

Mark Jooris, head coach of the Cougars for eight years, looks forward to the ‘new’ season: “We expect a very competitive series with the Menace. It’s always a good atmosphere in the rink when we play against each other.”

LEAMINGTON FLYERS (3rd place – 34-14-5-3 for 76 points) versus GEORGETOWN RAIDERS (6th place – 30-21-1-4 for 65 points). The 2023 Jr. B Sutherland Cup champions in their first campaign in the OJHL won two of the meetings between the teams, 4-1 and 6-5 with a 3-3 tie and a Raiders 2-1 win in their first meeting of the season. Under the tutelage of head coach Dale Mitchell the Flyers, despite long road trips, won 18 of their 28 games away from home, fourth best in the OJHL. The club led the league with five tied games. They were led in scoring by captain Cayden Faust with 20 goals and 63 points. Alex Cunningham had the most goals with 31. In the net, the tandem of NHL draft prospect Sebastion Gatto and Carson Barnes teamed up for a combined 2.34 GAA with Gatto posting four shutouts.

Head coach Mitchell: “This should be a great series. We have had four close games against the Raiders this season and they finished off strong, so we know that it will be a battle right from the start. It will be exciting to get the playoffs underway and play some meaningful hockey again. In Leamington we are all looking forward to it.”

The Raiders had a 30-goal scorer in Quinn Tavares who finished with 67 points, tops on the club. He was followed by Gabriel Ciarallo and Brandon Kakei with 51 apiece.  Captain Jack Guvenal (43 points) and Conner Thomson-Dick (39) topped their point getting from the blueline. The club made several moves near the trading deadline to add depth to their roster and were in a battle all season long in the middle of a very competitive playoff race from fourth to eighth.

Georgetown head coach Shawn Snider on the match-up: “We have to play a complete game every game to get past the Flyers. We hope to feed off the energy of the crowd in the first game in their rink, they have lots of passionate fans. I’m not  too worried about not having home ice advantage, our games against Leamington this season have been very competitive so we just want to take it one at a time, stay focused, stick to our game plan, eliminate turnovers and we should be OK. The Flyers are a balanced team, well-coached and well structured, so it will be a good challenge for us.”

In the last matchup to be decided in the West, and in the league overall, it will be OAKVILLE BLADES (4th place – 32-20-1-3 for 68 points) versus BUFFALO JUNIOR SABRES (31-20-0-5 for 67 points). The Blades ended the season on an eight-game winning run with six of those coming on the road. In the OJHL’s final regular season game they defeated Buffalo 3-2. In previous contests it was 3-2 Buffalo in 2OT and 4-1 and 6-2 in favour of Oakville.

Leading the pack in scoring for the Blades, the Centennial Cup hosts, was Noah Tyrrell. Obtained from North York at the trade deadline, he tallied 22 points in 21 games in Oakville and 58 overall in the OJHL this season. Luke Johnston and co-captain Sean Clarke, who was in Collingwood a year ago, followed with 53 points apiece. Goalie Gavin McCarthy played in 42 games in recording a 2.59 GAA.

Head coach Scott McCrory is happy to get home ice advantage: “It’s always a big plus to get the extra game at home, especially against a team as strong as Buffalo. They are well coached and have lots of skill. We didn’t really get the start we wanted to the season, but we have implemented a couple of new systems lately and it’s paid off for us. Last month, it didn’t look good for us for fourth but the boys pulled together and we made it happen. We want a long playoff run now so that we are not rusty when we host the Centennial Cup.”

The Jr. Sabres’ Patrick Cole had a 37-goal, 60-point campaign. Captain Dylan McFadden, one of four Canadian-born players on the Buffalo roster, posted 58 and Cameron Doran 56. Aiden McKenna played the bulk of the games in net, 36, with a 2.89 GAA and three shutouts.

Buffalo bench boss Sean Wallace: “Back in the 2019-2020 season, our second-round matchup was supposed to be against the Oakville Blades before the postseason ended abruptly due to COVID-19, so it’s only fitting that Oakville is the team we will be competing against. We are excited to have earned this opportunity to be back in the playoffs. We’re really proud of the way our team has come together and the way our captain and leaders have set such a high standard for the group.”

Despite not being able to advance to the postseason the NIAGARA FALLS CANUCKS had a more than acceptable start in their first OJHL season. They had 18 victories, including one over Collingwood in December and another over Trenton, the top team in the East, on Family Day. Missing out by just five points for a playoff berth were the rebuilding TORONTO PATRIOTS.

Follow Ron Valentine on X at @ronandlynda