There is no clear-cut jewel among the multiple contenders in the wild Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League. Cases can be made in favour of the Kitchener Rangers, London Knights, Saginaw Spirit and Windsor Spitfires. And in the middle of the pack are the Flint Firebirds.
Flint has won four straight games and has a record of 6-2-2 over its last 10 outings to move to within striking distance of the big four that is Kitchener, London, Saginaw and Windsor.
And while Flint — which is in fifth place with a record of 26-17-2 — may be a dark horse in comparison to Kitchener, London, Saginaw and Windsor, there is a much to like about the under-the-radar Firebirds, including their overall team discipline.
Through 45 games to date, the Firebirds have spent just 402 minutes in the penalty box. And their per-game penalty-minute average of just 8.9 is the lowest in the entire 20-team OHL.
Then there is the balanced, well-distributed scoring attack that is a Flint feature as no less than 12 Firebirds have tallied at least 10 goals thus far this season.
Team Canada forward Ty Dellandrea leads the Firebirds in goals with 26 and import Evgeniy Oksentyuk is right behind with 22. Then there are Jake Durham with 18 goals, Ethan Keppen with 16, Riley Piercey with 15, Riley McCourt with 13, Connor Roberts with 13, Jack Wismer with 12, Cody Morgan with 11, Jack Phibbs with 11, Tyler Tucker with 10 and rookie Brennan Othmann with 10. (And Vladislav Kolyachonok is knocking on the double-digit door with nine goals.)
Of note, McCourt, Tucker and Kolyachonok are all defensemen.
Meanwhile, when it comes to goalies, Kitchener has, arguably, the best puck-stopper in the Western Conference in Jacob Ingham. But Flint conceivably has the best one-two goalie tandem in the Western Conference in veterans Anthony Popovich and Luke Cavallin.
Popovich, who back-stopped the Guelph Storm to a stunning, surprising OHL championship last spring, has a record of 18-13-1 to go with a 3.77 goals against average and .897 save percentage as Flint’s starter this season. And Cavallin has been an ace in the hole as Popovich’s backup with a record of 8-4-1 to go with a 3.69 goals against average and .897 save percentage.
As Eric Wellwood has done a good job in his first full season as the Firebirds head coach, general manager Barclay Branch has patiently and methodically assembled a well-rounded roster in Flint.
For example, of the above mentioned players, McCourt, Morgan, Tucker, Roberts, Piercey and Popovich all arrived in Flint via trades made by Branch. And Branch also added dependable, veteran defenseman Owen Lalonde, who, along with Popovich, were part of Guelph’s OHL championship team of last season.
I am not saying that Flint is better than Kitchener, London, Saginaw or Windsor. And I am not saying that the Firebirds are necessarily on par with any of the Rangers, Knights, Spirit or Spitfires.
But what I am saying is that, come playoff time, the Firebirds, with all that they have, as outlined in this column, could contend for Western Conference supremacy without taking a back seat to any of the Rangers, Knights, Spirit or Spitfires.
If there is a weakness in the Firebirds lineup, it is well hidden. Just as their strengths are not over-powering.
But there is strength in the numbers in Flint.
Few penalty minutes. Balanced scoring. Two good goalies.
To be sure, there is also much to like about Kitchener and the job that Mike McKenzie has done as general manager and interim head coach. The Rangers appear primed for a long playoff run.
And with Dale Hunter at the helm as the boss of the Knight shift, London has three strong forward units and a top six defense corps that is up there in ability and experience.
Saginaw? The Spirit can light it up with the best of the OHL, led by dynamic, second-year forward Cole Perfetti, overager Cole Coskey and trade deadline addition Ryan Suzuki.
Over in Windsor, the Spitfires have been the surprise team of the OHL, though they seem to be better built for next season rather than this one.
All in all, I really, really like the overall makeup of the Firebirds in Flint.
Having said that, though, in a Western Conference that is so incredibly balanced, the Firebrds could well lose in the first round of the playoffs. Because, let’s face it, come the first round of the conference playoffs when eight teams face off, at least one of Kitchener, London, Saginaw, Windsor or Flint will be done for the season.
The Western Conference is a wild ride.
PHOTO: Flint goalie Anthony Popovich. (Photo by Todd Boone.)