It was beginning to feel scripted.
The Kitchener Rangers were snake-bitten against a London Knights team that clearly had their number. Six straight playoff losses hung over the Rangers’ collective heads and a 3-0 series deficit loomed if they couldn’t begin rewriting the tale of a one-sided rivalry.
“Three-nothing is a hard obstacle to overcome,” Rangers forward Ben Thomson said Tuesday. “We needed to show that we could beat them and prove it to ourselves even.”
Thomson’s Rangers got the outcome they desired in Game 3 on Monday. After firing a combined 64 shots at Knights goaltender Anthony Stolarz, who relinquished just one goal in the first two games, Kitchener’s offence exploded with six goals in a 6-2 Game 3 victory.
The win put the Rangers back in the series with the Knights, and gave them a small sense of redemption. In a series that was quickly beginning to feel like the four-game sweep in last year’s Western Conference finals, the Rangers can now begin making amends for a disappointing moment in last year’s run.
The bitter taste of defeat lingered throughout the summer and became a motivating factor for the returning players.
“Something that hurt the most is knowing that we could have gone further and maybe challenged in the OHL finals,” Thomson said. “I think this year’s a good way for us to get some redemption.”
The Rangers aren’t the same team they were a year ago, similarly to the way the Knights have forged through junior graduation. Matt Puempel sought out the Rangers in the summer when he asked to be dealt from Peterborough.
The former Petes captain is enjoying the type of ride he envisioned upon becoming a Ranger.
“It’s a lot of fun to play in the playoffs, but when it’s against London, it’s special,” he said.
Returning home to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, known affectionately as “the Aud,” gave the Rangers new life on Monday. Rangers fans are known as being some of the most passionate in junior hockey, and the players fed off their energy.
“We needed to get on our home ice and get a win because they are the London Knights and they were the best team in the OHL this year in the standings for a reason,” Puempel said. “We couldn’t let this series slip away.”
The Rangers-Knights rivalry is one of the most heated. There have been some memorable moments over the years, with perhaps the most memorable coming in 2005. At the end of Game 1, a melee broke out near the Knights goal. Mike Richards and Corey Perry, who were teammates on Canada’s world junior gold-medal winning team months earlier, squared off at centre ice in a tilt that will forever live in this rivalry’s lore.
This series has already provided one memorable moment. Late in the second period of Game 2, Stolarz stole one from Puempel, whose shot was gloved by the goalie by the near post. After the game, the Rangers felt robbed when they believed the replay showed a goal, and not a save.
Strangely, the shot wasn’t reviewed at the time. Photographs from the local newspapers seem to indicate Stolarz’s glove was in the net at the time he caught the puck. The non-goal didn’t exactly cost the Rangers the game, but they would go on to lose 2-0.
“If I just bury that without (Stolarz) getting a piece of it, it makes it an easier decision for everyone,” said Puempel. “Whether or not it was in, I haven’t had too many calls in the past go back two games and change the call. I’m trying to just forget about that one and move on.”
Several Rangers alumni have reached out to the current players recently. A series against a hated rival tends to do that.
Among those are Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and last year’s captain, Michael Catenacci. Catenacci was visibly shaken after last season’s Game 4’s loss to London, which ended his junior career.
The former captain can’t change the outcome on the ice this time around, but has been around the team at times this year and offered some guidance.
The alumni’s presence reminds these players they’re playing for more than just themselves and the city.
“Everyone that’s played here is keeping a close eye on this series,” Thomson said. “They all passed on their support and I don’t think it would just be for us … we do it for the whole Ranger family.”
With Kitchener’s offence finally clicking, Thomson hopes that doubt now creeps into his opponent’s mind.
“We were just luckily able to chase (Stolarz) out of the net and hopefully do some mental damage, some confidence damage on him,” he said. “We can hopefully ride that into (Wednesday’s) game.”