By Paul Krotz/OHL
Given the magnitude of this Midwest Division rivalry, it’s hard to believe that this season marks just the third time in almost 20 years that the London Knights and the Kitchener Rangers will battle in the post-season.
If the 2012 Rogers Western Conference Championship Series for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy is anything like their regular season head-to-head or their last two playoff encounters, OHL fans will be in for treat.
The clubs met in the second round of the 2010 playoffs in a series that was pushed seven games before a Rangers’ squad led by Jeff Skinner prevailed over Nazem Kadri’s Knights. Prior to that, Corey Perry led the Knights to a 4-1 series win over Mike Richards and the Rangers in the 2005 Conference Finals on the way to capturing a MasterCard Memorial Cup title.
“These are two great organizations and the fan bases are incredible,” said Kitchener Rangers Head Coach Steve Spott. “The series is going to be intense, fast paced and good entertaining hockey that will be fun for the fans to watch.”
Despite finishing behind the Knights in the regular season standings, the Rangers claimed four wins in six contests against their rivals outscoring the Knights 22-18, however three of those games were decided by one goal including a 1-0 Rangers win in their sixth meeting of the season on March 11.
The Knights still finished first overall in the OHL standings and won their fifth Hamilton Spectator Trophy as regular season champs before beating the Windsor Spitfires in four straight games, and the Saginaw Spirit in six to earn a couple of extra days rest before facing the Rangers.
“Our club has a good mixture of youth and experience,” said Knights Head Coach Mark Hunter. “We believe we have four solid lines and six defencemen that we will continue to roll in these playoffs and who want to keep pushing forward and keep on winning, it’s time for a new series and we are looking forward to it.”
The Knights have spread out the scoring so far in these playoffs led so far by Seth Griffith who has 12 points tied alongside 2012 NHL Entry Draft prospect defenceman Olli Maatta. Veterans Greg McKegg, Austin Watson, and Tampa Bay Lightning first rounder Vladislav Namestnikov each have nine points.
The Rangers are freshly removed from a seven-game series win over the Plymouth Whalers ending the series on the road Tuesday night with a 6-3 win. They had previously defeated the defending champion Owen Sound Attack in five games.
“It’s very important that your leadership group take control this time of year,” said Spott. “Coming off of two real competitive matchups the guys had to endure a lot of physicality and would have liked an extra day off but the guys are used to heavy schedules. We have to look at this like a short term event and be sure to get better every day.”
The Rangers’ leadership group is led by fifth-year Ranger and team captain Michael Catenacci who is tied with Edmonton Oilers prospect Tobias Rieder for first in playoff scoring with 23 points each. Carolina Hurricanes first rounder defenceman Ryan Murphy also has 14 points so far in these playoffs.
“It’s definitely a quick turnaround and we will have to work hard to keep this going,” said Catenacci. “London has skill and speed and they’re a great team.”
Both teams are also strong between the pipes boasting a pair of Pittsburgh-area netminders with OHL Goaltender of the Year Michael Houser in goal for the Knights, and award finalist and Anaheim Ducks second round pick John Gibson for the Rangers.
The series begins Thursday night in London, 7:00 pm at the John Labatt Centre before the series shifts to Kitchener on Sunday for Game 2 at the Memorial Auditorium, one of the few buildings the Knights could not win in this season.
“It’s been important to keep everyone focused on our goals,” said Knights Captain and Montreal Canadiens prospect Jarred Tinordi. “Playing in Kitchener, it’s a tough place to play, their fan support is awesome just as it is in London, and the series will have a great atmosphere.”
2012 Rogers Western Conference Championship Series Schedule:
London Knights (1) vs. Kitchener Rangers (3)
Game 1: Thursday April 19 - Kitchener at London - 7:00 pm
Game 2: Sunday April 22 - London at Kitchener - 7:00 pm
Game 3: Tuesday April 24 - Kitchener at London - 7:00 pm
Game 4: Wednesday April 25 - London at Kitchener - 7:00 pm
Game 5: Friday April 27 - Kitchener at London - 7:00 pm*
Game 6: Sunday April 29 - London at Kitchener - 7:00 pm*
Game 7: Monday April 30 - Kitchener at London - 7:00 pm*