OHL Western Conference Final review

By Jason Ahrens

The London Knights defeated the Kitchener Rangers 4 games to 1 in the OHL Western Conference Final to advance to the OHL final against the Ottawa 67s.

The Knights won 3-2, lost 3-1, won 6-1, 5-4 in overtime and 6-0 to take the series. The victory over the Rangers came at a price; the hockey was very physical and intense to say the least, and increased in each game until game three. Each team lost a player to injury and another to suspension in that game, which seemed to cool things down a bit. The referee kept a tight lid on game four to prevent things from boiling over and with a close game, both teams stayed away from taking penalties in a game that the Knights won 5-4 in overtime.

The Knights were down two goals early and were reeling, with two players out with suspensions and two more starters injured, but the Rangers blew a couple of chances to put the game out of reach and the Knights stormed back and eventually won in overtime. The Rangers chances included a full two minutes with a five on three advantage early in the game with two of the Knights best penalty killers in the box. But they failed to beat goalie Adam Dennis and the Knights grabbed a lot of momentum and scored five goals on their power play as the Rangers had a discipline meltdown. The Knights went on to win the game easily once they overcame their rocky start, and then take the series.

Here is a recap of how key individuals on each team fared.

London Knights

Josh Beaulieu received a five-game suspension for a stick infraction to the head of Kevin Henderson. Brandon Prust (CAL) received a three-game suspension he received for a check that put Matt Lashoff out of the series with a concussion. Prust caught Lashoff carrying the puck up ice with his head down and left his feet at the last second on the hit as his shoulder caught Lashoff on the head. Lashoff had been one of the better Rangers up to that point in the series.

Prust had been shadowing Mike Richards (PHI) and the two gritty players had been battling for every inch and exchanged a number of bumps and lots of whacks with the stick. Richards had been the playoff MVP for the Rangers and finished his OHL career with 28 points in 15 playoff games, including seven in this series. In the game that the Rangers won Richards was a force, scoring a beautiful short-handed game-winning goal and clinching the game with an empty net goal in the 3-1 victory. Richards also had a center ice scrap with Corey Perry (ANA) at the end of the first game. He showed throughout the series a great deal of heart and grit, playing the style of hockey that the Philadelphia Flyers love.

Perry had eight points in the series to take over the playoff scoring lead from Richards and if the Knights win, he is a good bet to win the playoff MVP award unless teammate Danny Syvret gets the nod. Perry actually finished the series with a -1 rating and saw a lot of Boris Valabik (ATL) or Mark Fraser. The two big defenders tried to pound Perry every time he had the puck and at times they were very effective at neutralizing him. Perry did force them into a few penalties, but all in all, they did a great job against him. Perry scored in bunches in this series, the first after being caught with an illegal stick early in game three, a move that gave the Rangers a full two-minute, two-man advantage, but they failed to score. Perry came out of the box fired up and scored one goal and added two assists in leading the Knights to a 6-1 win. Perry also picked up three assists in game five.

Rob Schremp (EDM) had his most impressive series of his postseason career. He was a main target of Valabik early in the series and the Rangers tried to hit him at every opportunity to get him off his game. He shrugged off several face washes from Valabik in the first game and picked up two points in a 3-2 win. In game four with the Knights down two goals early and in danger of being swept away by the Rangers momentum, Schremp dramatically turned the tide with a couple of great shifts. He made a read on a play to pick up a loose puck when two Rangers took a run at Adam Perry. Schremp took the puck behind the net to the other side, and with a quick move fed Perry who was now all alone in the slot. The kid brother looked just like big brother Corey in scoring a key goal. A few minutes later it was Schremp scoring on a feed from Corey Perry to tie the game. Schremp had a big game five with two beautiful goals and made a great steal from Richards to nullify a good scoring chance. Schremp finished the series with three goals and five assists and was +5. Schremp was obviously a guy the Rangers had thought would wilt under the pounding, but he took it all, and produced some big goals even strength and on the power play, and he threw his share of hits this series as well.

Danny Fritsche (CLB) had a huge series, picking up seven points in the four games he played in, and was +4. He missed the second game due to the flu and was sorely missed. Fritsche scored goals in several ways, by diving for a loose puck, tipping a shot from the point after he won a faceoff cleanly and by cutting to the middle and burying a wrist shot on the power play. The Knights acquired Fritsche at the trade deadline in a deal that will cost the team a part of their future, but Fritsche helped ensure that their present might include an OHL championship. He played a physical series and took whatever the Rangers threw at him.

Dave Bolland (CHI) had a surprisingly quiet series as far as penalties went. Bolland only picked up two minors and is no stranger to giving out his share of lumber, but in a series that saw a number of serious hacks given out, he stayed clear of that. He battled bigger defenders for space in front of the net on the power play, he had six points and scored perhaps the biggest goal of his career in game four when he jumped on a bouncing puck in overtime and buried it to give the Knights the win and a 3-1 lead in the series.

Dylan Hunter (BUF) struggled with the speed and size of the Rangers and had perhaps his worst game of the season in the game two loss when he was knocked off the puck on a regular basis by the Rangers. He bounced back with a great performance on the power play in game three picking up two goals and an assist in the 6-1 rout, but he had only one point in the other four games and was –3 for the series. He seemed ineffective when he stayed on the ice too long.

Trevor Kell (CHI) was injured in the third game on a check from David Clarkson that was later reviewed by the league, but no suspension was given. Kell may miss the OHL final with the injury to his hand. Clarkson had been a big part of the Rangers run, scoring six goals in their first ten games, and four of them were game winners. But he finished his OHL career on a sour note as he managed only one assist in the series — a puck that him in the leg in a scramble in the front of the net. Clarkson took a number of unnecessary penalties and although he did draw a few of his own, he spent a lot of time flopping on the ice in vain in a futile effort to draw more. He never established himself as a force in the corners or in front of the net like he did in earlier series.

Jordan Foreman played a good series, drawing several questionable penalties that angered the Rangers and their coaching staff. When the injuries and suspensions happened, Foreman responded well to the extra ice time and scored a big goal in game four. He had two goals and one assist in the series and was involved in two scraps, including one with Valabik who is almost a foot taller than him.

Drew Larman took over the role of shadowing Richards once Prust was suspended and did a decent job. Larman took a number of key draws for the Knights and killed his share of penalties and created some offensive chances.

Syvret had an amazing series, finished with seven points, and playing a ton of hockey as he played nearly 40 minutes in the second game with the absence of Bryan Rodney who suffered a knee injury in the first game. Syvret played through a great deal of pain in games four and five. He was knocked awkwardly into the boards in game three by Ryan Donally (CAL) who received a five-game suspension for the hit, but no penalty on the play. It appeared that he might see only spot duty in game four, but as the game went on he played more and more. The Rangers aggressive penalty kill gave Syvret some trouble early in the series and he had to deal with shot blockers diving in front of him and he usually made the right play but wasn’t able to get the puck on net early in the series because of this. Once Rodney went down the Knights used four forwards on most of their power plays and Syvret successfully defended a number of odd man rushes when the Rangers capitalized on mistakes. He did a great job on the penalty kill and blocked a lot of shots especially when down two men. This series featured two OHL First Team All-Stars on defense and Syvret definitely outplayed his counterpart, over age Andre Benoit. Benoit picked up four points and failed to produce any magic the numerous times when the Rangers had a two-man advantage.

Rodney had a great first game and scored the winning goal with Clarkson sitting in the penalty box on a rather foolish penalty. He is a doubtful starter for the opening game against Ottawa and the Knights will likely be cautious in inserting him into the line-up, as they will need him healthy for the Memorial Cup.

Marc Methot (CLB) stepped up big time when Rodney and Syvret were injured. His playing time increased dramatically and he didn’t skip a beat and had no trouble with the aggressive forecheck that the Rangers applied. Statistically you don’t see a change in Methot’s offensive numbers, but he is much calmer with the puck this year than he was in his first two seasons. He makes better passes, he is more aware of where he is in regards to his blue line and won’t make the two line passes that he did in the past. He is also willing to carry the puck up ice out of his own zone and is doing this much more now. He did a great job in battling the Ranger forwards in front of the net and prevented them from getting any rebounds. He was physical in the corners and picked up only four minor penalties in the series. He was a stellar +6 and played some of the best hockey in his career.

Daniel Girardi was another one of the Knights trade deadline pickups and the overage defenseman was rock solid, especially when the injuries kicked in. He picked up three assists and was +3 in the series. He didn’t play an overly physical series, he was more content to play a containment game and take away space and time from the Ranger forwards. He blocked a ton of shots, especially on the penalty kill.

Adam Dennis won all four games in net and was tremendous early in the third game before the Knights provided him with a cushion. After alternating goalies throughout the playoffs, it appears that the Knights will be using primarily him the rest of the way, but predicting whom the Knights will play in net is a difficult task. Oddly enough, when Gerald Coleman (TB) starts, the Knights seem to have trouble scoring, in each series when the Knights exploded on their opposition, it was Dennis who was in net. If they had a close game and only scored a few goals, it tended to be Coleman in net. Coleman struggled playing the puck behind his net in the only game he appeared in, but he couldn’t be faulted on the two goals the Rangers scored and the third was into an empty net.

Kitchener Rangers

For the Rangers it will be a series that they will look back thinking that it could have been theirs to win. They will be returning the majority of their team and will be one of the early favorites for next season. Gone will be Clarkson, Benoit and Adam Keefe. Richards could possibly return as an overager, but barring the NHL lockout continuing, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that his return would be feasible. He has now joined the Philadelphia Phantoms for their playoff run in the AHL. With these four gone the Rangers are without their three captains, three-fifths of their power play and four of the five holdovers from their Memorial Cup championship in 2003.

Evan McGrath (DET) will be the sole player with a Memorial Cup ring for the Rangers next year, and their regular season leading scorer will be counted on to keep improving his game. He had a decent series against the Knights, picking up two goals and three assists, but he will have to keep working on his speed and strength in the off-season.

Goalies Dan Turple (ATL) and Eric Pfligler are both eligible to return as overagers, but it is doubtful that the team would take them both back. Pfligler had a great post season run stepping in for the injured Turple, but the Knights finally got to him in the last three games of the series. If both return to the OHL, the Rangers will likely deal one of them to free up an overage spot.

Donally is the only other 19-year-old on the team, and if the Rangers wanted a big defensive forward to fill one of their three overage spots, he could be back.

Valabik could possibly end up in Atlanta if there is a NHL season, but his skating will probably prevent that from happening. The big man had a tremendous playoff run and did a great job shutting down the big guns on Owen Sound and London. He had a good series against London with the exception of game five. He made Perry work hard for every inch and stifled Hunter. Valabik played physical and for the most part, cut out his foolish penalties. He had a big time tilt with Prust and the mismatch of the season with Foreman. With Benoit gone, he may see some power play time next season.

Lashoff, Fraser, Jakub Kindl, and Matt Pepe will be returning to form what should be one of the leagues best defenses. Kindl had a somewhat disappointing series, ending up pointless and –5. He did show some good poise at times on the power play and may blossom into the new quarterback next season.

Up front the Rangers have a few forwards who will likely be taken in the 2005 NHL Draft. Patrick Davis, Mike Duco, and Henderson learned some valuable lessons and will be better for it next season. Justin Azevedo had a great series and the 16-year-old diminutive center will have no trouble stepping up into the second line center role. He was used in many key situations. He killed penalties including when the Rangers were two men down, he was on the ice late in the game when the Rangers had their goalie pulled, he was on the power play and he was even selected to take a penalty shot in game five when the game was still in doubt. He should be one of the top ranked OHL skaters for the 2006 NHL Draft, joining players like forwards Jordan Staal (Peterborough) and Bryan Little (Barrie), and defensemen Bob Sanguinetti (Owen Sound) and Michael Caruso (Guelph) as some of the key prospects to watch next season.

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