Kitchener Rangers begin defense of their OHL title

By Jason Ahrens

OHL Western Conference Playoff Preview


Scouts will be busy
getting their last looks at some of the best prospects in the OHL over the next
few weeks as the playoffs have begun. The hairdressers were busy last week as
many players continued the playoff tradition of dying their hair blonde. In ten
days or so, half of the teams will be done for the season and the bruises will
have time to heal. The OHL Western Conference is home to the two best regular
season teams in London and Guelph, but there are a number of other very good
teams as well, which will make for a long tough battle to the OHL championship.


The series that will
likely be the most hotly contested and perhaps, heaviest scouted, is the
Kitchener Rangers and the Plymouth Whalers. There are a number of players in
this series who have already been drafted and there are some good prospects for
the 2004 and 2005 NHL Draft. It is a rematch of the Western Finals last season
that Kitchener won in seven on home ice after being down three games to two.
The Rangers went on to win the OHL title and the Memorial Cup and Plymouth had
to feel that it could have just as easily been them. This season they are
seeded fourth and fifth and they were tied in the standings but the Rangers had
more wins. Plymouth won the first two games of the series this year before
Kitchener took game 3 on home ice on Monday night.


There are three
possible first round picks playing in this series. The Whalers have feisty left
wing Vaclav Meidl, who stands 6’4”
and weighs 195 pounds. He skates well, has good hands and is willing to go into
traffic to get the puck.  In his first
season in the OHL he tallied 42 points in 67 games and had 108 penalty minutes.
The Rangers have slick center Evan
who is 6’1” and 175 pounds. He is a good playmaker, has great on
ice vision, works hard and is good on faceoffs. McGrath put up some
disappointing numbers in the regular season; he had 51 points in 68 games and
struggled with consistency. They also boast huge Slovakian defenseman in Boris Valabik who is 6’6” and 206
pounds. He brings a decent package of skating and puck skills to the table with
his huge frame and the willingness to use it to keep attackers to the outside.
Valabik had 15 points in 68 games, was a +2 and had a whopping 278 penalty


McGrath may be the
key to the series. Last season the Rangers could hit you with two number one
lines with the tandem of Derek Roy (now
playing with the Buffalo Sabres) and Greg
(Florida Panthers organization) on one line and Petr Kanko (LA Kings third round pick
from 2002) and Mike Richards (Philadelphia
Flyers first round pick in 2004) on the other line.


Richards has missed
Games 2 and 3, and the Rangers need support from McGrath especially with the
loss of rugged agitator David Clarkson, who is suspended for the entire series.
His loss will be felt on the power play, as he is the man who stands on the top
of the crease and drives the goalie crazy. McGrath responded well with a
two-goal effort in the game 2 loss and picked up an assist in game 3 as he
lined up beside Kanko. Kanko had a regular season that was all right, but
didn’t meet the expectations that many had of him. He had 68 points in 55 games
and was a +8 and tacked on 97 penalty minutes. This being his third year in the
league and likely his last, it was hoped that he would pop 40 plus goals, not
the 28 that he potted. At times he seemed to be too concerned about being
physical and stirring things up rather than focusing on putting the puck in the
net. Despite his average year, the Kings have to be thrilled with his total
lack of fear on the ice and his ability to raise his game a notch which he
showed during last seasons Memorial Cup run and is starting to show in this
series with a big two goal effort in Game 3. The Rangers may just go as far as
he can carry them.


Richards is sorely
missed as he had a great season as he finally stepped out of the shadow of Roy
and put his stamp on the team. He had 89 points in 58 games, had the second
best plus/minus on the team at +21 and played very well with the Canadian World
Junior Team. He played an exhibition game with Philadelphia in London against
Washington and at times looked very much like a boy playing with men, but on
other shifts showed that he would belong in that league in a few years. In the
annual OHL Western Conference coaches poll, Richards was named the best penalty
killer, was given the nod as the second best playmaker, and finished third in
the best stickhandler and faceoff categories.


The Rangers have a
couple of young defensemen who will be watched closely when they get to play,
especially big rookie Devereaux
who stands 6’6” and weighs around 230 pounds and is eligible
for the 2005 NHL draft. How well the young defense adapt to the playoffs will
play a large part in deciding the winner of this series. Valabik has played it
rough all season, but he will find forwards stepping it up in a notch in their
hitting and the Whalers will be coming at him with speed hoping to draw him
into penalties.


The Whalers have a
handful of veterans who have been drafted by NHL teams who will be counted on
to play big roles in this series. On the blueline, James Wisniewski (Chicago 5th round 2002) and David Liffiton (Colorado 2nd
round 2003 traded to Phoenix) are lynchpins who play big minutes and bring
different aspects to the ice. Wisniewski is a power play horse, who wields a
wicked one timer from the point and makes crisp and accurate passes. He had a
very impressive 70 points in only 50 games and was a strong +31, which was 17
higher than his closest teammate. He won a gold medal with Team USA at the
World Juniors this January and was a key member of their squad. Coaches gave
him the nod as the best shot and offensive defenseman and he was ranked third
as the smartest player. Liffiton is more of a stay at home guy and will
probably be matched up against the Rangers top line as much as possible. He
finished third in the defensive defenseman category.


Up front, John Mitchell (Toronto 5th
round 2003) leads the offense and plays a good two-way game. He tallied 82
points in 65 games this season.  He
finished second in the most improved player category. Jonas Fiedler (San Jose, 3rd 2003) plays an intense game
and will drop the gloves, throw a big hit, or score a goal, whatever it takes
to get his team going. He had 46 points in 63 games and tacked on 83 penalty