The two best teams in the OHL Western conference will square off in what should be fire wagon hockey over the next two weeks. The Kitchener Rangers finished first in the conference and the Plymouth Whalers were right behind them, as the battle for first overall went down to the last weekend. There are many interesting sidebars and match ups to this series. Both teams advanced to this series by avenging first round losses of a year ago in the second round. Plymouth finally managed to get a huge gorilla off their back by defeating the London Knights in 7 games after being upset by the Knights in 6 games in 2002 and in 7 games in 1999. The Guelph Storm swept the Rangers last year, but they turned the tables this year, taking them out in 5.
Peter Deboer is the GM and head coach of the Rangers, and he and assistant Steve Spott left the Plymouth organization in 2001 to come to Kitchener. To say that they would love to knock off their old organization would be a huge understatement. Two key players in this series were traded for each other, Greg Campbell suits up for the Rangers now, while Ryan Ramsey enjoyed a strong season for Plymouth after a short stay in Kitchener. Jimmy Gagnon started his career with Kitchener and now toils for the Whalers. Beyond these common roots, there are a number of key match ups. I’ll look at how the two best defencemen in the league match up (sorry to Leaf fans who will point to their guys in Erie and Ottawa), two top prospects from Buffalo, two draft eligible forwards for this year, a couple of high scoring wingers, and how they compare in goal.
Both teams boast a star defenceman. Cole Jarrett was picked by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001, and has been a standout in his four years in Plymouth. Steve Eminger was taken by the Washington Capitals in the first round in 2002 and started the season there, before being assigned to the Canadian World Junior team, then back to the Rangers once the tournament was over. Both players have the potential to be very strong pros, and are looking for one last kick at the big prize in junior. They will log a ton of ice time and be a huge factor in who wins or loses this series. They are deadly on the power play and can hurt you in many ways. Jarrett is the more physical player; Eminger is a stronger positional player. Both are strong skaters, Eminger turns and shifts gears better, Jarrett goes north south better. Jarrett has a wicked and accurate wrist shot from the point; Eminger can kill you with laser like passes. Call this match up even.
A couple of Buffalo Sabres prospects square off at center. They are very different in stature, but Buffalo would be very wise to get both of their names on contracts, so that when these two compete next, it will be for a position in training camp. Chris Thorburn was rescued from hockey hell when the Whalers plucked him off the hapless Saginaw Spirit at the trade deadline. He was a huge factor in the series against the Knights, as London had fits trying to control the big, fast, strong center. He scored 30 in the regular season and hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs, as he drives the net well and comes off the wall on the forecheck with the puck more often than not. Meanwhile Derek Roy stands about 6 inches shorter than Thorburn, but is a giant for the Rangers. He plays in all situations, plays in traffic with no fear, and uses his size to his advantage by drawing penalties, as he is known to embellish the odd hook or trip. Roy is far more dangerous offensively than Thorburn, but he will be facing a very mobile and physical Whaler defence. To make matters worse for Roy, he will be lined up against some pretty fast forwards who will be trying their best to harass him on the back check and take time and space away from him. A very interesting part of this series will be the line match ups and don’t be surprised if these two centers go head to head from time to time. Edge Kitchener.
Another key match up down the middle is between a pair of 2002 draft eligible players, Mike Richards and John Mitchell. These two slick centers could go anywhere from the first to fourth round and bring a lot to the table. Richards let the Rangers in scoring in the regular season with 87 points and was second in plus/minus with a +35 mark, despite a bad start in that category. Mitchell counted 55 points, was +18 as he saw action on both the second and third lines. Mitchell is bigger, Richards is the better passer. Richards is quicker, Mitchell stronger along the boards. They both handle the puck well and have high panic thresholds. Edge: Kitchener.
On the wing, both teams boast a pair of pint size wingers who fly and can score goals in bunches. L.A. King draftee Petr Kanko is a mainstay on the Rangers top line and is a threat to score on the off-wing. The diminutive Czech has a strong lower body, and he cuts through defences like a hot knife through butter. He is coming off a solid year with 33 goals and 67 points. Plymouth counters with Chad Larose who had an eye popping 61 goals, 117 points and was +51. He has one of the best first steps in the league, and if you give him an inch, you’ll be staring at the 17 on the back of his sweater. Kanko does a better job at cutting in from the off-wing; Larose swoops around finding open ice and is a threat in all areas of the ice. Both players will play with an aggressive edge. Kanko is like a little tank, and will run over unsuspecting players, sometimes costing him a boarding or charging penalty. Larose when not using his stick to score goals can wield it like a sword. He missed 3 games in the London series for clubbing Chris Bain across the head, and in his return in game 6, he committed a spear that was seen by several thousand fans, a linesman but somehow missed the notice of the referee. So if you are a Ranger and get under his skin, keep your head up. Edge: Plymouth.
Florida Panther pick Greg Campbell has had a remarkable year for the Rangers since coming over in the off-season. He has played most of the year on the top line and made the Canadian World Junior team. Playing with Kanko and Roy, two guys who love having the puck, Campbell earns his pay by what he does without it. He is strong defensively, he plays with a physical edge, and sets up shop in front of the net on the power play, taking a ton of abuse, but popping a good chunk of his goals from close in. Ryan Ramsey went the other way in this trade, and was the second leading scorer for the Whalers. He is a quick player, who will handle the puck more than Campbell. He saw limited ice time in round 2, as he was battling injuries and that may slow him down for this series. Edge: Kitchener
The only area where there is no marquee player is between the pipes. Both teams have goaltenders with great stats, but they are more reflective of the strong team in front of them. Scott Dickie for the Rangers has far more experience than his counterpart Paul Drew. They will see lots of creative forwards coming at them this series. Dickie is stronger than Drew, but the Whalers will be very relieved to be shooting on someone other than big Chris Houle of the Knights who turned them away time and time again in the second round. Edge: Kitchener.
There are other interesting matchups, James Wisniewski vs. Marcus Smith on the power play. They both have booming shots and play well with Jarrett and Eminger respectively. How about over age defencemen, Nate Kiser of the Whalers vs. George Halkidis of the Rangers? This series might well be decided by who has the hottest special teams, if they are a wash, it will be which individual can outshine his counterpart.