The Kitchener Rangers entered the 2008 Memorial Cup Tournament as the favorite to take the title. They were ranked as the CHL’s top team for a good portion of the 2007-08 season, and were crowned as OHL champions after a hard-fought, seven-game final series with the Belleville Bulls. Add in the fact that the Rangers are the host team for this event and it is understandable as to why this top junior franchise is viewed as such a strong contender for the Cup.
Based on their performance in the first game of this tournament, it appears that the Rangers intend to live up to expectations. Although their opponent in this game, the QMJHL champion Gatineau Olympiques, put up a great effort, the Rangers overwhelmed the smaller Olympiques for long stretches of the first two periods. Kitchener fired 22 shots on Gatineau in the first period alone. The Olympiques did make a nice comeback in the third period to tie the game at 5, but the Rangers controlled play in the overtime as they tallied a 6-5 victory.
A comparison of the rosters of the two clubs provides some clues as to why the Rangers were able to control the play throughout much of this contest. The OHL’s top team has the most talent-laden group among the four finalists, at least in terms of numbers of NHL prospects in hand. The Rangers have seven NHL draftees on their roster, as well as one player destined to be chosen in the top 10 of the first round of this year’s NHL Draft, Mikkel Boedker. Boedker was asked about why the Rangers were prone to giving up multiple-goal leads late in games as of late, "It is something that the team needs to address if we are going to win the whole thing. We have to be smarter in our own zone and stop taking needless penalties." In addition to all of the above, the Rangers also boast the OHL’s Most Valuable Player this year in 20-year-old Justin Azevedo.
On the flip side, the Olympiques ice just three NHL drafted prospects. The best of the lot, Claude Giroux (PHI), had a stellar showing in the QMJHL playoffs, picking up 51 points in just 19 games. But he was held in check by the Rangers for most of this first contest, as he could only muster an assist in the third period. Giroux said of the game in general, "We really shot ourselves in the foot in the first two periods. We took a lot of penalties and Kitchener took advantage of us. Our team also gave up a lot of shots. We need to crack down on that in order to get back into the tournament." The other NHL draftees on the Olympiques, Paul Byron (BUF) and Joey Ryan (LA) were also pretty much kept in check as well.
One other point that underlines the fact that the Rangers will be tough to beat in this tournament is that they were able to mostly dominate last night’s game without three of the seven NHL prospects noted above. Defensemen Yannick Weber (MTL) and Robert Bortuzzo (PIT), and goaltender Steve Mason (CLB) all were spectators for the first game. But despite of missing two of their top defensemen and their best goaltender the Rangers were mostly firing on all cylinders on Friday night.
The Rangers that did pick up the slack in the absence of the talented trio were the players you would expect to do so. Azevedo totaled four points in the game and scored the winner in overtime, rocketing a wrist shot into the top right corner. Of his overtime heroics he said, "I found an opening on the left wing, was able to move around one player and just made the right shot." Left winger Nick Spaling (NAS) notched three points on one goal and two assists, while right winger Matt Halishuk (NJ) netted two goals for the victors. And defenseman Ben Shutron (CHI) picked up three helpers in the victory.
So, while it isn’t always the case that the team with the most NHL prospects is a good bet to take the Memorial Cup (or any other title), the Kitchener Rangers have made it clear that it could be the difference this time around.