Tobias Rieder and the new-look Kitchener Rangers will look to keep the exceptional Connor McDavid and his Erie Otters at bay on Friday Night Hockey.
The Rangers won’t be taking the Otters lightly after the Pennsylvania-based franchise won the home-and-home meetings before the Christmas break. Kitchener head coach and general manager Steve Spott knows a team with the likes of McDavid will be able to create offence.
“We respect them,” Spott said. “They’ve got some incredible young talent and we understand how dangerous they can be.”
Newly-appointed Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch is aware the Rangers were shorthanded in both previous meetings when several Rangers were injured or away at world junior camps. He knows his team will need to mind the details against an opponent like Kitchener.
“They’re a team that plays a very well structured game and they play with a lot of speed,” he said. “You have to move the puck quickly. If you hold onto the puck too long, you’re going to run out of options.”
The Rangers orchestrated one of the biggest deals before the Jan. 10 trade deadline with the acquisitions of forward Josh Leivo, defenceman Frank Corrado and goaltender Joel Vienneau from the Sudbury Wolves. The trio enjoyed a memorable moment on Sunday when the Rangers made their only trip to Sudbury.
Leivo assisted on Rieder’s late third period goal to tie the game then scored the game winner in overtime. The former Wolves trio brings an element the Rangers had been missing.
“Our challenge this year has been the ability to create offence,” Spott said. “We knew in our 50th season if we were going to do something, we were going to have to do something bold. We thought adding Frank and Josh gave us great offence not only up front, but from the back end with Frank’s ability to activate and help on our power-play.”
Knoblauch had heard about McDavid prior to accepting the Otters’ head coaching job in late November. The young prodigy has shined this season and impressed his new coach with his skill and drive.
“The thing I admire very much about Connor is he’s just not happy just being a good hockey player,” Knoblauch said. “I think he wants to be the best player, whether it’s in practice or a game, he wants to make sure that he’s an impact player here in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15 year old every night.”
McDavid, the first-overall pick in the 2012 draft, was the third player granted exceptional status to play in the OHL at age 15, following in the footsteps of Barrie’s Aaron Ekblad and John Tavares. McDavid leads all rookies with 49 points in 42 games this season.
“His explosiveness when he gets the puck — he can take off right away and probably the most impressive thing just watching him is how he can really challenge the defence,” Knoblauch said. “He really attacks them. If the defence is leaning one way or the wrong way, he does his best to exploit that.”
Rieder is overcoming some adversity this season after losing his setup man, Michael Catenacci, to junior graduation last summer. The German forward and Edmonton Oilers prospect found instant chemistry with Leivo and is enjoying a much more productive second half after a disappointing first half.
“Having Josh now has really rejuvenated Tobi,” Spott said. “We’re playing him at centre right now, which Edmonton knows, and it’s forced Tobi to move his feet and skate more. It’s been a real good line, the line of (Matt) Puempel, Rieder and Leivo and we’re going to need them down the stretch.”
This game will feature the 37th and 38th ranked skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting. Kitchener’s Justin Bailey, ranked one spot ahead of Erie’s Stephen Harper, is gaining increased confidence by the game after joining the Rangers this season.
Bailey, the son of former Buffalo Bills linebacker, Carlton, is a power forward in the making with a big frame he can still fill out. Spott believes his young prospect has immense potential.
“Whoever gets this young man in the draft is really going to get a special player because his raw ability is just limitless,” Spott said. “He has the ability to do highlight things on the ice because of his skill-set and his ability to skate and handle the puck. He’s not afraid to go to dirty areas to score. He just is the full package.”
Harper is also in mould of a power forward and displays the offensive instincts that could make him a scorer. He has three goals in his last three games as Knoblauch noted his forward has been getting more involved in the play of late.
“When he’s moving his feet and getting involved in the plays, he’s a very difficult player to play against,” Knoblauch said. “He’s very strong and skates pretty well for a guy his size and he’s scored some nice goals. He’s the player that coaches like to have on your team that makes it difficult for the opposition to play against.”
Rangers starter John Gibson left a huge impression during the Americans’ world junior gold medal winning performance. In addition to the gold, Gibson was named to the tournament’s first all-star team, top goaltender and tournament MVP.
“We saw what he did at the world juniors, we saw what he did in the playoffs last year — he gives us a chance to win every night,” Spott said.
The Otters will be without their world junior star as Swedish goaltender Oscar Dansk will miss the game due to an injury sustained last Friday in a game against Sarnia. Erie will instead start backup Devin Williams, who handled the bulk of the recent load in Dansk’s absence.
“We’re fortunate to have two good goalies because Williams has been playing very well,” Knoblauch said. “The guys have a lot of confidence when he’s out there.”
The Rangers are fighting to maintain positioning for a top four seed and the home ice that comes with it.
“If we can make the playoffs then anything can happen,” Spott said. “We understand that home ice is important to us because of the fact we feel our building gives us an advantage. But ultimately it’s going to be tough down the stretch because everybody in the Midwest Division is playing well right now.”
The Otters, meanwhile, are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, but remain just 11 points back of Saginaw for the final playoff spot. These conference games matter, but those that matter most, Knoblauch indicated, are those against teams like Saginaw and Windsor for the eighth seed.
“Those are two teams we’re going to need to pass if we’re making playoffs,” Knoblauch said.