Separated by about 250 miles of highway via Ontario and Michigan, two formidable foes will face off in a much-anticipated, major junior hockey showdown.
And given the fact that they are so evenly matched, it is seemingly suitable that the no. 2 seed Saginaw Spirit and the no. 3 seed Soo Greyhounds will line up in the second round of the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference playoffs.
Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven set are slated for the mid-Michigan town of Saginaw this Friday and Sunday.
The Western Conference foes went head to head eight times during the 2018-2019 OHL regular season with each team winning four games.
Both teams finished the regular season with 96 points but Saginaw got the nod as the no. 2 seed in the Western Conference by virtue of winning more games than the Soo.
The Spirit overtook the Greyhounds for second spot by the margin of a 45-17-6 record. The Greyhounds ended up as the no. 3 seed with a record of 44-16-8.
On the goals for and against side, the teams were rather equal during the regular season. Saginaw scored 294 goals and allowed 218 while the Soo tallied 292 times and gave up 224.
The Spirit showed more penalty minute discipline than the Greyhounds, however. Saginaw spent 592 minutes in the penalty box in 68 regular season games as opposed to 759 for the Soo.
Both teams cruised through the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Saginaw swept the Sarnia Sting in four straight games while the Soo was able to sideline the stubborn Owen Sound Attack in five outings.
First-year head coaches man the benches for both teams with Chris Lazary at the helm in Saginaw and John Dean as the headmaster for the Soo.
Of note, Lazary replaced the fired Troy Smith 22 games into the current season when Saginaw had a record of 11-9-2. Regular season and playoffs included, Saginaw since has a superb record of 38-8-4 with Lazary as the head coach.
Both teams have National Hockey League draft picks as their 1999 birth-year, clear-cut starting goalies.
Saginaw has Arizona Coyotes prospect Ivan Prosvetov as its main man between the pipes. The gigantic, Russian-born goalie fashioned a regular-season record of 36-11-3 with a 2.94 goals against average and .910 save percentage. Thus far in the playoffs, Prosvetov has a 4-0 record with a 2.15 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
The Soo counters with Los Angeles Kings prospect Matthew Villalta as its starter. A good-sized goalie himself, Villalta had a regular-season record of 33-12-5 to go with a 3.03 goals against average and .903 save percentage. Thus far in the playoffs, Villalta has a 4-1 record with a 2.89 goals against average and .895 save percentage.
Of note, despite being the same age as Villalta, Prosvetov is an OHL rookie, having spent the previous two seasons in first the North American Hockey League and then the United States Hockey League before moving up to the OHL and Saginaw for this 2018-2019 campaign.
Villalta, meanwhile, is in his third OHL season with the Greyhounds.
Both teams boast high-scoring, offensive defensemen.
Rookie Bode Wilde, an NHL draft pick of the New York Islanders, scored 19 goals for Saginaw during the regular season. Meanwhile, overage defender Mac Hollowell, an NHL draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, lit the lamp 24 times for the Soo during the regular season.
Saginaw had four players score 30 or more goals during the regular season and three others hit the 20 mark.
Rookie Cole Perfetti rang up 37 goals to lead Saginaw while Team Canada graduate Owen Tippett tipped in 33, Cole Coskey notched 31 and Damien Giroux found range 30 times.
Meanwhile, Blade Jenkins potted 23 goals while overager Albert Michnac and Sault Ste. Marie native Nick Porco scored 20 times apiece.
The aforementioned Wilde and veteran forward Ryan McLeod both fell just just short of the 20-goal mark with 19 apiece.
Of note, Coskey scored his 31 goals in just 52 games before suffering a head injury that has kept him on the sidelines through the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, overage standout Keeghan Howdeshell led the Greyhounds with 46 regular-season goals while Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Morgan Frost added 37.
Next up were local product Cole MacKay with 27 goals, Arizona Coyotes first-rounder Barrett Hayton with 26 (in just 39 games), Hollowell with his 24 and Ryan Roth with 21. And import flash Jaromir Pytlik scored 11 times in only 26 games.
Besides the aforementioned Nick Porco, Saginaw has another Sault Ste. Marie product in rookie forward Camaryn Baber.
Baber had 8 goals, 15 assists, 23 points in 48 regular season and has scored once with two helpers in four playoff outings thus far. Of note, over his last 15 games, playoffs included, Baber has 4 goals, 10 assists, 14 points.
Looking at how even the two teams are, this is a series that could well go the maximum seven games.
Saginaw has home-ice advantage, should the series go seven games — and Hockey News North will give the Spirit the narrow edge based on that.
PHOTO: Saginaw Spirit winger Nick Porco looks to pass while being defended by Soo Greyhounds defenseman Ryan O’Rourke in OHL action from earlier this season.