OHL Western Conference finals preview

By Jason Ahrens

The London Knights and the Kitchener Rangers will square off in the OHL Western Conference Final Series. The series will pit NHL first round picks Corey Perry (ANA) and Rob Schremp (EDM) of the Knights against Mike Richards (PHI) and Boris Valabik (ATL) of the Rangers. The Knights beat the Rangers in all six meetings during the regular season, but both teams enter the series winning eight straight playoff games.

London and Kitchener are only about an hour drive apart, but not many fans will be able to make the journey to see their team play on the road due to how the tickets were sold. The two teams could not agree on a playoff schedule and the OHL had to mediate the process, so if the gamesmanship on the ice matches that off the ice, hockey fans will be in for a treat.

Both teams won their second round series in four straight and will have more than a full week off between games which is a mixed blessing for the Rangers. The time off will give number one goalie Dan Turple (ATL) more time to recover from his shoulder injury suffered in game three of the first round series against the Erie Otters. Backup goalie Eric Pfligler stepped into a tie game in that third game with his team down two games to none and responded marvelously to the pressure and reeled off eight straight victories. He has a goals against average of 1.86 and a save percentage of .947 in the postseason. While the Rangers will benefit from having players recover a bit from injuries, they may feel a loss of the momentum that they had built up.

The Knights on the other hand are used to having time off between series, as they have swept teams on four occasions over the past two years. In fact, this year the Knights are in an almost identical situation to where they were last year. They are facing a bitter rival who suffered a first round scare but then went on to an easy second round victory. Like last year, the Knights enter round three with their goaltenders splitting time evenly and it is anyone’s guess on who gets the start, Adam Dennis or Gerald Coleman (TB). The main difference is that this year the Knights are the team full of 19-year-old veterans, where last year it was the Guelph Storm who had the age and size advantage on them. The Rangers are a younger team than the Knights, this is a team that will likely lose only five or six members to graduation, and they are a bigger team than the Knights.

Like any playoff series, goaltending will be critical. The Knights should have an advantage in this department, as both of their goalies have fewer question marks than the Rangers tandem. Pfligler is quick, but at 5’8, he leaves a lot of net to shoot at, and no one in the league goes upstairs better than Schremp. With 41 goals in the regular season and six so far in the playoffs, the Rangers will need to watch him closely. The Rangers did a great job against the Owen Sound Attack and took most of their snipers out of the picture with an aggressive style of defense. The Rangers finished their checks consistently and didn’t allow too many quality-scoring chances on Pfligler. If Turple is able to play in this series, he will take away a lot of the room upstairs with his 6’6 frame, but he is a lot slower than Pfligler and could be vulnerable to a Knights team that loves to make cross ice passes for one time shots. Throw in the fact that Turple let in a soft goal in overtime in the first game against Erie and was yanked in the second game, the Rangers could give Pfligler the opportunity to run with the ball against the Knights even if Turple is ready.

On defense, the Knights have been basically going with only four defensemen with rookie Steve Ferry seeing a handful of shifts in the fifth position and they have used three different rookies in an even more limited role as their sixth defenseman. Veteran Jeff Whitfield might be able to return to action in this series, but after being sidelined for a long time, he will not be in game shape and will be broken in slowly if he does suit up. Captain Danny Syvret leads the big four and was a first team all-star this year and he hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs as he has seven points in eight games and leads the team with a +11. Overage defenseman Bryan Rodney has been an offensive force with 10 points in the playoffs. Daniel Girardi and Marc Methot (CLB) are big mobile defenders who take care of their own end and can punish opposing forwards against the boards. These four guys have not faced much of a challenge so far in the playoffs, but they will feel some heat from a big and fast Ranger team. The Rangers were able to force the Attack defense corps into making a number of turnovers by forechecking aggressively. The Knights defenders will not make nearly the number of mistakes that the Attack did, but if they go with four guys all series, fatigue could become a factor.

Overage defenseman Andre Benoit anchors the Ranger defense corps and joined Syvret as a first team all-star. The five-year veteran is looking for a pro contract, because like Syvret, NHL teams have overlooked his success in the OHL. He has been a force in the playoffs with 14 points in 10 games and is a +10. He was a big part of the Ranger comeback against Erie and was involved in a number of the critical goals in that series. He is great at jumping into the rush or sneaking off the point and the Knights wingers will have to be constantly aware of him. Valabik will be one of the key players in the series, the 6’6, 225-pound Slovak has had a mediocre year troubled by a concussion, but played well against the Attack and was a big reason why their forwards had no desire to go hard to the net. He is a big part of their penalty kill and uses his long reach to take away passing lanes. The Knights love to play against him, and they can usually cause him to take several penalties and they will not back away from him before or after the whistle. They will test his speed, mobility, and discipline throughout the series.

The Rangers have a trio of draft prospects for the 2005 NHL draft who will be watched closely in this series by scouts. Matt Lashoff, Jakub Kindl, and Mark Fraser are among the top ranked defensemen in the OHL for the draft. Lashoff is a 6’2, 200-pound prospect from New York and is a good all round defenseman who is solid in his own end. Kindl is 6’3 and 185 pounds and the Czech defenseman arrived with a lot of hype at the start of the year and has had trouble meeting those expectations. Scouts really like his set of physical tools, but he has not put them together enough on a consistent basis. Fraser is a physical stay at home defenseman with nice size at 6’4 and 195 pounds. Like Valabik, he makes forwards pay a price when they near the crease area. The speedy Knights will test his foot speed and agility. Matt Pepe rounds out the Ranger defense corps and will see a regular shift. Only Benoit plays on the first power play unit as the Rangers usually use four forwards, so as a group, these defensemen will be more rested than the Knights top four.

The Knights have a nice balanced scoring attack, but they rely heavily on Perry to be the straw that stirs their drink. Perry led the league in scoring and was named the OHL first team all-star right winger. After scoring 130 points in the regular season he has kept on rolling with 21 points in eight playoff games. Perry loves to get involved physically and verbally with opponents and he will relish the boos that will rain down on him when in Kitchener. Perry has fought three times in the playoffs and the Rangers would rather see him in the box for five minutes plus than on the ice, so they may try to get under his skin, and if someone like Valabik gets involved with him, expect a line brawl to break out. Perry does a great job at protecting the puck along the boards and will twist and twirl out of the way from opponents and he has a knack at knowing when to go down in order to draw a penalty.

Dylan Hunter (BUF) usually rides shotgun with Perry and the two have a great on ice chemistry. Hunter finished second in scoring in the OHL with 104 points and joined Perry as a first team all-star. Hunter plays a big role on the Knights power play and is usually one of the main distributors of the puck. The Knights do not use a set left winger with this line, but Brandon Prust (CAL) may see regular duty in this series to ensure that no liberties are taken with Perry. Prust is one of the best fighters in the league and can dish out thundering body checks as well. The speedy winger is great along the boards and likes to set up shop in front of the opposing goalie when the Knights have a power play.

Schremp is one of the Knights main shooters on the power play, he scored a whopping 23 goals on the power play in the regular season, but the Knights will need him to chip in during even strength situations in this series. He will be a player that the Rangers will get physical with in the hopes of limiting his effectiveness. Dan Fritsche (CLB) was brought in at the trade deadline to be one more arrow in the quiver for the potent Knights offense. This series is exactly the type of series that they wanted him for. Scoring chances will be at a premium and they need guys to bury the chances when they occur, as well as work that much harder to create more. Fritsche is a guy who will battle the Rangers for every inch, and he has the speed and the shot to make a difference in a close game.

Dave Bolland (CHI) is another speedy forward with grit who the Knights will need to contribute in this series. Last season nagging injuries and fatigue seemed to limit his effectiveness against Guelph in the playoffs. This year the Knights are expecting more from him in this series. Bolland can play any forward position; he is a regular on the penalty kill and sees some action on the power play, but usually on the second unit. He will be used on all of London’s top three lines, depending on what role coach Dale Hunter wants him in at a particular moment. Trevor Kell (CHI) and Drew Larman will be used as a checking line against Richards whenever Hunter gets that match up. Larman takes a lot of key draws for the Knights. Kell sees regular duty on the penalty kill and has the speed to create some offense but is struggling with his confidence right now and is passing up good scoring opportunities in order to give the puck to a teammate. At this time of the year, he just needs to put the puck on net and hope for a rebound or deflection.

Josh Beaulieu will be looking to improve his draft status for the 2005 NHL draft and the physical forward will counted on to dish out some hits, do some dirty work and probably drop his gloves on a few occasions. Only 17, Beaulieu is on his way to being one of the top fighters in the league. The fourth line of Jordan Foreman, Kelly Thomson, and Robbie Drummond will be used to provide some energy and to throw a few hits, but if the Rangers go to a three line game, the Knights will use these guys sparingly.

Richards has helped carry the Rangers this far with his 21 points and +10 rating in the postseason. They often double shift him; he plays on both special teams, and is often on the ice for key draws. The all-around center can be counted on his own end, so the Rangers may try to have him go head to head with Perry and Hunter to see if he can nullify those guys. David Clarkson usually lines up beside Richards, and the overage right winger is the Claude Lemieux of the OHL. He is loved in Kitchener, but hated elsewhere, especially in London and Guelph. Clarkson is a solid 6’1 and 205 pounds and will not be moved easily from the front of the net. He finishes his checks, he will use his stick to whack opponents, he will drop his gloves, he will verbally spar with players and he will score big goals for the Rangers. On the bad side for the Rangers, it is not a question will he take dumb penalties in this series, it is a question of how many. The Knights penalty kill scheme usually allows their opponents to camp in front of the net, so Clarkson will be wide open for some juicy rebounds if the Rangers get some shots through. If they do try to move him, they will have a battle on their hands. Clarkson has six goals in ten playoff games including a few game winners in overtime.

Evan McGrath (DET) led the Rangers in regular season scoring with 87 points but has found the playoffs a bit tougher with only eight points in ten games. He did answer the bell in a critical game four against Erie with his team down two goals late in the third and on the verge of going down three games to one, McGrath scored twice with the goaltender pulled to even the game and the Rangers went on to win the game and the series. Erie had not lost a game all season that they were leading after two periods until games three and four of that series. If Richards does play Perry head to head, there will be a lot of pressure for McGrath to create enough offense for the Rangers to win. McGrath is usually on a line with Patrick Davis who should be drafted in the top four rounds in this years NHL draft. The speedy Davis is coming off a 20-goal year and has five points in nine playoff games. Scouts have been concerned about his ability to play in physical or tight checking games so this will be a great opportunity for him to step up and to showcase his talents. Rookie Mike Duco could be a late round pick in the NHL draft, but he has found it difficult to match the 50 points he put up in the regular season and has been held off the score sheet so far in the playoffs. He plays a feisty game and the Rangers will need him to create some havoc when on the ice and if he chips in a few points this series that will be gravy for them.

Kevin Henderson has the size at 6’3 and 200 pounds to catch the eyes of scouts, especially with his strong skating. Unfortunately for him, the hands were not there this season and he managed only five goals, causing his stock to tumble. He has had a fantastic playoff so far, chipping in three assists in ten games and being used on the checking line and penalty kill units. He will be asked to shut down Perry or Schremp and he might make their life difficult if not miserable over the next two weeks. Ryan Donally (CAL) is another big defensive forward, standing in at 6’4 and 227 pounds; he will be used in a checking role. With only three regular season goals and no points in the playoffs, he won’t be much of a threat to score, but is another big body for the Knights to battle through.

Craig Voakes plays the point on the power play and uses his good passes to find open teammates for scoring opportunities. The Knights have many aggressive penalty killers, so he will have to be on his toes, as they will try to challenge him in hopes of creating a short handed scoring chance. Voakes has eight points in the playoffs and will be used in a variety of situations when even strength, he might line up beside Richards on left wing, or center the third or fourth line. Adam Keefe is an overage forward who will be in the face of the Knights all series and will likely drop his gloves a few times, with 286 minutes in penalties in the regular season, he is no stranger to the penalty box. When not in the box, he is one of the best Ranger penalty killers. He gets some time on the power play, usually taking over for Clarkson as the guy in front of the net. Keefe had 46 points in the regular season and has five so far in the playoffs, so he will be counted on to chip in some points this series, as well as drive the Knights crazy.

Jean-Michel Rizk (MIN) has not scored a point yet in the playoffs, despite seeing some action on the top two lines. He will need to contribute this series, as the Rangers can’t afford to have any passengers. Rookie center Justin Azevedo has played excellent in the playoffs so far, with three goals and one assist. He centers the third line, gets some second line power play duty, and kills penalties. There are not many 16-year-olds seeing the ice time that he has in these playoffs. He is only 5’8 and 165 pounds, but flies around the ice with no fear, much like former Ranger Derek Roy who played with Buffalo last season. Azevedo is not eligible until the 2006 NHL draft, and he will be counted on to play a bigger role next season when Richards moves on.

This series could be a dandy, the Rangers will be trying to plant doubt into the Knights minds and serve them up some adversity. The Knights have not entered the third period without a lead since the opening game of the playoffs. The Rangers have a definite size advantage but the Knights have plenty of character and their players keep their feet moving to fight their way through checks. Special teams will be critical as both teams have excellent power plays and the series could be decided by who takes the least amount of penalties. There will be some interesting line match ups and one would expect that there would be some great fights in this series. Both teams play an aggressive style so defensemen on both teams will be feeling the heat, and this will be a great opportunity for a number of great prospects to put on a show to demonstrate why they deserve a pro contract.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.