Though both teams are already in the tournament, the Memorial Cup will be the furthest thing from the minds of the Kitchener Rangers and Belleville Bulls when the Ontario Hockey League championship series begins Wednesday.
The Rangers are the host team for the Memorial Cup, making the Bulls the OHL representatives regardless of the outcome of this series. But as each team said this week, the focus remains on winning the league.
“I give our guys credit that without really any prompting, they were thinking about an OHL championship and going through the front door,” Bulls head coach and general manager George Burnett said. “It’s certainly a privilege for us to be playing in the OHL finals.”
Not much separated these two teams throughout the regular season. Both teams emerged as the favourites from their respective conferences while making their first three playoff series victories look easy.
As Rangers head coach and general manager Peter DeBoer said, it’s fitting the top two teams will determine the winner of the league.
“I think it’s appropriate that the two best teams during the regular season in the Ontario Hockey League are playing in the final and are going to be representing Ontario in the Memorial Cup,” he said.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities on both sides of this series. Each team has the ability of rolling four lines while their special teams have been a factor in the playoffs.
Both teams have identical power-play efficiency throughout the playoffs at 25.8% while Belleville’s penalty kill has been marginally more effective.
“I’m sure (special teams) will be a factor,” Burnett said. “I know that Kitchener is very aggressive in the way they kill penalties, unlike some of the teams that we’ve seen so far in the playoffs.”
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy similarities is each team’s ability to cope with injuries. The Kitchener Rangers have been without arguably the top goaltender in junior hockey in Steve Mason since the second round, while world junior star forward Shawn Matthias has yet to suit up for the Bulls in the playoffs.
Mason will be unavailable in this series as he continues to rehab from surgery and the Rangers remain hopeful he will be ready for the Memorial Cup.
Matthias, meanwhile, is expected to play his first playoff game at some point in this series after being diagnosed with mononucleosis and tonsillitis.
“No one escapes the injury bug come this time of year, especially when you are three rounds deep and having played three real tough opponents,” DeBoer said. “I think that we’ve kind of become accustomed to it and it’s not really a crutch or an excuse anymore.”
As is always the case, strong playoff teams succeed with great goaltending and neither team is an exception. Belleville goaltender Mike Murphy continued proving himself in the playoffs after being named the league’s top goaltender.
Josh Unice, meanwhile, had some big shoes to fill once Mason went down to injury but the transition has been seamless. The acquisition of Mason earlier this season, DeBoer said, was to give the team depth with two starting goaltenders.
“We went out and got Steve Mason for exactly the type of situation that happened, which was an injury at a key position,” DeBoer said. “Looking back on it in hindsight, we are very fortunate that we went out and did that.
“They both have different strengths and weaknesses but at the end of the day, they both win games.”
Both teams were able to capitalize in the playoffs through a strong work ethic, attention to detail and through team speed. Since Belleville’s home rink features an Olympic-sized ice surface, the Bulls were a team built on speed and skating ability. Like the Bulls, the Rangers are quick and relentless on the forecheck.
“I think the Kitchener Rangers have a lot of speed,” Bulls captain Matt Beleskey said. “They forecheck really hard and they’re always right on your D. We’ve got to be prepared for a hard-working, hard forechecking team.”
While neither team is overlooking the significance of already having their spot in the Memorial Cup, they understand the advantage winning the OHL championship would give them heading into the tournament.
“It would mean a lot to go in through the front door,” Beleskey said. “You wouldn’t want to go into the Memorial Cup on a losing streak.”
“I’m predicting that this is going to be a lightning fast series with a lot of transition and a lot of speed,” DeBoer said. “It should be a lot of fun to watch.”