Knights, Rangers ready to add to new chapter to rivalry: an OHL Western Conference final preview

Sunaya Sapurji
Buzzing The Net
Michael Houser
Michael Houser

The OHL's Western Conference final has all the makings of another classic series between the London Knights and the Kitchener Rangers.

They haven't met in the playoffs all that often — only once in the last five years and twice in the last 10 — but both times have been memorable.

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In 2004-05, London beat Kitchener in five games en route to a Memorial Cup title, but no one will forget future NHL stars Corey Perry, then with the Knights, fighting the Rangers Mike Richards at centre ice to set the tone in Game 1 of that series.

The last time these two Midwest Division rivals met in 2000, the Rangers beat the Knights in seven games, thrashing them 8-3 at London's the John Labatt Centre.

"It's nice for the media to go back and find some of those stories that happened in the past, but we're going to write a new book and a new chapter to this great rivalry,"  said Kitchener Rangers head coach and GM Steve Spott during a league conference call.

"Ultimately I can tell you that there's mutual respect and we'll play hard and I know the Knights are going to play hard and I think both cities are going to be treated to a pretty great level of entertainment for the conference final."

But while Spott and coaching counterpart Mark Hunter were trying to downplay the bitter, fervent rivalry between the two successful OHL clubs, their respective captains were a little more forthcoming about what this matchup promises to deliver for fans.

"It's going to be a hell of a series," said Rangers captain Michael Catenacci.

"I have to agree with him," said London captain Jarred Tinordi. "I think the series is going to be pretty intense as far as the atmosphere goes."

That might be the only time these two players are on the same side of anything once the conference final starts.

During the regular season, Kitchener held the upper hand winning their head-to-head matchup 4-1-0-1, though on paper in the playoffs these teams have been remarkably close in terms of their goal production and special teams.

"For us specialty teams and goaltending is imperative," said Spott. "Finding a way to get some of those depth guys some goals -- if we can get that we can be successful."

Hunter, doesn't see much changing for his young squad in terms of preparing for the Rangers who will no doubt give the Knights a run for their money after eliminating the favoured Plymouth Whalers in Game 7 on Tuesday night.

"I think one thing about our team is that we believe we have four lines that we can roll and six (defencemen) and we've been doing that throughout the playoffs," said Hunter. "We'll take what happens and continue to do that.

"Every coach is going to tweak this and that, but you want to make sure you're not going to change too much were you're going to cause confusion because we have a lot of young kids."

The Rangers won't have much time to rest with the Western Conference final scheduled to start on Thursday night at the JLC.

"It's definitely a quick turn around," said Catenacci. "London's a great team and we've just got to stay focused on our side, stay composed, and work our bag off like we have the last two rounds."

(1) London Knights (49-18-0-1, 99 pts, beat Windsor 4-0 and Saginaw 4-2) vs. (3) Kitchener Rangers (42-24-1-1, 86 pts, beat Owen Soun 4-1 andPlymouth 4-3)

Season series: Kitchener 4-1-0-1. Odds favour: London 67 per cent. Prediction: London in 6.

Veteran leadership: Both teams have their share of elder statesmen in the dressing room and on the ice, but it's hard to discount the play of overager Tyler Randell for Kitchener in his albeit brief playoff appearances. He's scored six goals in two games, and four of them came when it counted the most in Game 7 against Plymouth.  The fact that the Rangers wanted to win Game 6 of their series against for Plymouth specifically for him, speaks volumes. Advantage: Kitchener.

Goaltending: This one is too close to call between Kitchener's John Gibson (2.17 goals against average, .948 save percentage) and London's Michael Houser (2.39 GAA, .922 save percentage).

"It's a big rivalry we have there and there's no better place to play than in the Western Conference final," said Houser, the OHL's goaltender of the year. "In terms of playing (Gibson), we've had a couple good battles this year. We grew up playing pretty close to each other (in Pennsylvania). He was a year younger than me so I was never playing against him but I've been keeping an eye on him. He's a great goalie and we're looking to have a couple more good battles in this round." Advantage: even.

Special teams: On paper, Kitchener holds an ever-so-slight advantage on the power play scoring 16 times on 61 chances (26.2 per cent) versus London's 11 goals on 44 chances (25%). In their series against Saginaw the Knights were shut out on the PP going 0-for-12 in the final four games of their six-game victory, though their ability to beat Saginaw even strength was the difference. Strong penalty killing is what helped the Rangers in their second-round series keeping the Whalers 0-for-22 without a single power-play goal in seven games. Advantage: Kitchener.

Why London should win: As Mark Hunter noted above the Knights are a team with depth that rolls four lines and six D that will come in a waves of green and gold. Offensively they have more depth in terms of scoring with the likes of Austin Watson, Seth Griffith, Vladislav Namestnikov, rookie Max Domi and defenceman Olli Määttä on the back end. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg should surely be included in that group, though his status is uncertain after suffering the dreaded "upper body" after a second period collision with Saginaw's Vincent Trocheck in Game 6. At the time of writing, McKegg is listed as a game-time decision for the Knights.

Defensively the Knights are strong with three world-class blueliners in Scott Harrington (Canada), captain Jarred Tinordi (Team USA) and Olli Määttä (Finland) who all participated at the world junior championship along with the aforementioned Houser in net.

How Kitchener could win: Secondary offensive production outside of leading playoff scorers Tobias Rieder and Catenacci, who are both tied with 23 points, is going to be key for the Rangers. Eighteen-year-old Radek Faksa showed in the Plymouth series that he has the capability to be a game-breaker and he'll need to show the same skill-set against the Knights if the Rangers are looking for another upset. Getting Randell to continue his torrid scoring pace wouldn't hurt either. In the second-round Catenacci also did an excellent job of drawing the Whalers into penalties, so as long as he isn't himself penalized for diving — like he was in Game 6 — the Rangers can do some damage on the power play.

The Rangers blueline is led by Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Ryan Murphy, along with stalwarts Cody Sol, Max Iafrate and Ben Fanelli. Fanelli in particular looks to be improving exponentially with each playoff round. Their defence, along with Gibson in goal, will be put to the test by London's rolling attack.

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