CHL Notebook: Kitchener Rangers’ veterans flip the switch

Givani Smith of the Kitchener Rangers. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The mystery briefcase, the Jay McKee take on the custom of the hardest-workin’-player hard hat, analogizes the Kitchener Rangers in a way that wasn’t intended.

The main narrative for the OHL playoffs is whether someone, anyone, will be capable of neutralizing the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A contender’s fitness for the role is not pegged on how it starts the playoffs – every series develops a distinct personality, they say – but for jumping-off purposes, the Rangers are the only other top-three seed besides the Greyhounds that got through the first weekend unscathed. Only so much can be read into Kitchener taking a 2-0 series lead against the No. 7 seed Guelph Storm in the Highway 7 rivalry. Beyond the result, the take-home is that the Rangers have that X-factor that occasionally comes to the fore in the second season – elders eager to carve out a playoff run that was elusive during the first three seasons in the league.

“It’s really important to make a run,” winger Givani Smith (DET) said on Sunday, after chipping in a goal during Kitchener’s 2-1 win against the Guelph Storm, his former team. “Most guys on this team are in their last year. You definitely want to leave that mark.

“We definitely had a lot of work to do (after the trade deadline). Lot of new faces. But we’ve become pretty tight, a really confident group.”

That need to check off a box courses through the Rangers’ core players. There is the quartet – No. 1 centre Logan Brown (OTT), defenceman Logan Stanley (WPG), second-pairing D Aiden McEneny and overage goalie Mario Culina – who were with the Windsor Spitfires for their 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup triumph, which came as a host team, after a seven-game first-round playoff loss. Smith only had nine playoff games, all as a rookie in 2015, over three seasons with the Storm. The homebrews, such as 40-goal scorer Adam Mascherin (FLA), have only seen the second round once.

So that is the hunger part. The nettle for the Rangers’ fanbase is that the Midwest Division title came so easily that it created the impression of team that hadn’t been tested. But the final exams are all anyone tends to remember.

“Everything’s been pretty positive with us,” Brown said. “This is a hockey city. You hear the atmosphere, the noise, the fans are passionate. We just focus on what we have to do.

“It’s pretty easy to get up for playoffs. If you can’t you’re in the wrong game — there’s something wrong with you. It’s a whole different animal. We got the intensity up in Game 1 (a 7-2 win where Kitchener scored five first-period goals) and carried it over.”

Speaking of carrying, there is the stratagem that Rangers coach Jay McKee has instituted, having the man of the hour don gloves and tote around a rectangular case while coyly being tight-lipped about the contents. If the point is that no one knows what’s inside a competitor until they reveal it, well, point made. The only clear conclusion is Kitchener is motivated, but so is everyone else.


Killer cross-over
If a cross-over team wins two playoff rounds, does it put up a banner for winning a division to which it doesn’t belong? That scenario has yet to come pass in either the NHL, WHL or Canadian Football League, but it is very much in play with the Tri-City Americans holding a 2-0 series lead with a pair of road wins against the first-place Kelowna Rockets in a B.C. Division semifinal.

It really should not be seen as a shocking development, given that the Americans had an 85-point regular season even though first-rank prospects Jake Bean (CAR), Michael Rasmussen (DET) and Juuso Välimäki (CGY) combined for only 122 regular-season games. (Those 85 points also topped the Victoria Royals and Vancouver Giants, who are level at 1-1 in the other B.C. series.) Kelowna has also had a history of easing into the first round, having lost at least once during the opening home leg of the first round in two of the previous five seasons.

The real twist is probably the 9-7 scoreline in Game 2 last Saturday and that the Americans have got the jump on the Rockets, one of the WHL’s standard-bearer franchises over the past 15 years. With the other cases of cross-over teams delivering comeuppance – the Portland Winterhawks against the Prince George Cougars in 2017 and Regina Pats against the Lethbridge Hurricanes in ’16 – an observer could point to the first-place team having a sparse playoff record.

The Rockets’ deep playoff history also includes a comeback from a 3-0 deficit against Seattle in 2013, but in that instance they were put in a corner by three overtime losses. This time around, both Americans wins came in regulation.

All told, the lower-seeded road teams across the CHL punched their weight relatively well, winning nearly one-third of games (15 of 47). Five of the eight WHL teams who started on the road are either ahead of even, so that probably amounts to a small-sample-size argument for the system.

On such a timeless flight
Playoff hockey travel makes for strange seatmates. While it is not unheard of for playoff opponents to share a plane flight – it is standard practice for the teams in the WHL final – the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and Drummondville Voltigeurs had to do so after their triple-overtime marathon last Saturday.

The teams played nearly two complete games, 114 minutes and 26 seconds, before the Eagles’ Olivier Bourret scored for a 5-4 victory and 1-1 series tie. After that depleting four-hour 47-minute endurance contest, the QMJHL teams boarded the same charter flight to Sydney, N.S., where – no rest for the weary – they play three games in four nights, beginning Tuesday.

The game was the third-longest in QMJHL history. The long night was triggered after the Eagles’ Jordan Ty Fournier scored a short-handed goal with just fewer than six minutes left in the third period.

Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Alex Formenton, LW, London Knights (OHL)
Formenton scored five goals over two away games, including a hat trick last Saturday when the Knights were pipped 4-3 in overtime by the Owen Sound Attack to fall into a 2-0 series hole. It wasn’t just that Formenton scored all three goals to lead the Knights to within a minute of stealing one on the road, but how the 18-year-old Ottawa Senators prospect scored them. Respectively, Formenton found the slew of space to snap a shot after carrying in from the half-wall, then tucked in backhands off the rush on both his second and third tallies of the game. He actually reached back from below the goal line to score his second.

The trade-deadline turnover in London depressed Formenton’s offensive stats in the regular season (29 goals and 48 points in 48 games), but his weekend performance offered a reminder of the elite talent that won him a spot with Team Canada for the world junior championship. Meanwhile, London, officially outshot 90-47 by the Attack so far in the series, will likely need several other sources of scoring to get into the series.

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