Sunday, September 23, 2012

It takes time for the bacon to sizzle

Matt Puempel, a first round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators and the newest Rangers'  offensive dynamo.

There were the doubters. As there always are. The skeptics who watched the pre-season and the nervous ones who thought that their one-win-in-six-tries warmup would have the OHL's Kitchener Rangers reeling before the puck was even dropped on opening night.

Questions surrounded the team entering their commemorative 50th anniversary, which had the public relations team working overtime (PR queen Michelle Fortin created the ubiquitous "50" crest donning the left shoulder of the team's sweaters) just as much as it had Rangers' coach Steve Spott trying to live up to his big talk entering the season.

Spott is never one to spew more words than necessary like a certain GM running the Leafs down the 401, so it was a little surprising when the skipper uttered words like "memorial cup year." You can't do that too soon unless you know you have your ducks in a row. And no one does this early.

But emerging through the disastrous pre-season and the fog and the mist is a team that's transpiring to be a frightful combination of work ethic and skill. The work ethic's always been there. Has been for 11 years now. The question everyone was asking themselves and their brother, was does this team have enough skill to compete with the Londons and the Plymouths and the same old, same old who are brought up when talking about the monarchy of the OHL's west.

I still don't think they're within the same breath muttered by Spott's fast talk, but the tools are there.

Matt Puempel, a forward, and a former CHL rookie of the year is the prized addition of the off-season. A somewhat cheaper (though still not cheap) trade than many expected partly due to the timing- summer's not prime trade territory, partly due to Puempel having his sights set on Kitch-town before he was even drafted into the O, like most players are guilty of.

So when Puempel was existent but invisible in the pre-season, the red flags shot up.

A pressing question no more. After two opening weekend wins, one of which saw the left winger notch two and gather a generous empty netter in the other, Puempel has been the creative spark left by the graduation of the pint-sized pivot Michael Catennaci.

Sure, there's the usual crop of names when mentioning the Rangers' offensive prowess, three of which have NHL scouts drooling nightly in Ryan Murphy, Tobias Rieder and Radek Faksa, now property of Carolina, Edmonton and Dallas respectively.

But that instinctual, primal function of making something of nothing only really resides in Murphy. And Murphy, the defenceman can only do so much because Murphy, the defenceman is responsible for another whole half of the ice; his own.

In two games, Puempel has shown that creativity. And the skill to back it up. A Mats Sundin-esque backhander over Sarnia's JP Anderson's shoulder and a 5-on-3 rebound drive shot in with as much authority as a Zdeno Chara blueline bomb has the new face lighting up his new mates' mugs.

When you win when they matter, no one asks questions. And it'll stay that way until Spott decides if this is the list of combatants he wants to go to war with at the trade deadline. Hint: it's not, but his assets in the draft pick cupboard are slim, so for now, there's not much he can do about it.

The chemistry will come. But with Puempel looking every bit the CHL rookie of the year of old, it'll come that much faster.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Attack Double-up Rangers 6-3

It was just that one 4-0 game, right? The Attack couldn't possibly keep up their incredible pace from two weeks ago against this historically one-sided matchup between the once-dominant Rangers and the surprise of the year in the OHL's Owen Sound Attack.

Sorry, Rangers fans. Once upon a time two weeks ago, the Attack placed their foot in the door of OHL elite status when they rang off a few straight wins after an opening night loss to Guelph.

Now they've blown the door wide open.

And the traditional league powers, such as the Kitchener crew are starting to take notice.

Last night's 6-3 win for the Attack forced a better-prepared, but still not-good-enough Rangers team to fight in the game of their lives, and still come up empty-handed, for the first time at home.

Even without team offensive superstar Joey Hishon, out with a hurt hand, the Attack found a way to pot six against these Rangers.

It was strangely reminiscent of last year, where always the matches were tightly fought, but the blueshirts seemed to pull the rabbit out of the hat at the end, just while the Attack were still searching where that quarter behind their ear came from.

This year, things are going to be a little different in the Midwest.

If there were any lingering nay-sayers out there, Owen Sound have proved to the league they're for real.

Now 7-1, the Attack lead the Western Conference with 14 points, and the Rangers' only two gaffes in their 6-2 record have come via the Bayshore Boys from the Sound.

The Rangers played catch-up all night and never commanded a lead, as Attack captain Garrett Wilson (pictured) led the charge with two markers, and 16 year-old sensation Jarrod Maidens added a single, as did tough-guy Mike Halmo and Brendan Childerley.

Halmo had a Mascioli-on-Tavares-esque exchange on top of Rangers centre Andrew Crescenzi after battling along the boards with the puck, holding and beating on the oversized Rangers forward while the play was light years away from them.

Halmo got away with a roughing minor. Crescenzi got a holding call.

Attack head coach Mark Reeds also got into it with referees Matt Parlette and Craig Spada.

Reeds was incensed his Attack were called for five minor infractions in the first and the Rangers were seemingly escaping the whistle with murder.

Reeds was tossed, but stayed to complete the game.

A fine may be forthcoming to the team for his decision to stay with the team and not take part in some early Oktoberfest festivities next door.

While the Rangers may have had some chances to put the Attack away on Spada's and Parlette's calls, the squad again failed to produce anything of significance, finishing a pitiful 1-7 on the powerplay, a trend all too common this season.

The penalty-kill must also improve. The Rangers sit dead last at a meagre 68.4% efficiency rate.

Specialty teams have the ability to kill elite teams and win games.

The Rangers have sensed all too late, that Owen Sound is a foe needed to be put away by an extraordinary effort.

And aside from Andrew Crescenzi and a select few (namely Ben Thomson and Tyler Randell who all scored), the Rangers' lacklustre effort just wouldn't cut it on a night where the Attack's red-carpet entrance into official league stardom was ingrained into the blueshirts' collective conscience.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rangers Win Thanksgiving Game in OT vs. Erie

Thanksgiving seems quite the appropriate time of year for the Erie Otters to come looking for a fight in Oktoberfest-crazed Kitchener.

Because boy, have these Rangers feasted on the team across the border.

With Monday's 4-3 overtime thriller, make that 11 straight W's in the win-loss column dating back to an eight-game sweep last season of the water-cats.

If any game had the make-up to halt the excessive bleeding, it was surely this one.

Coming off a disheartnening 6-5 loss on Saturday night at home in the Tulio arena, the Otters lacked the intensity the Rangers brought in the first, yet skated to the dressing stalls with a 1-0 advantage.

Credit Toronto Maple Leafs' standout draft pick and Otters' captain Greg McKegg for that. You can also hand some responsibilty to new Rangers overager Jamie Doorbosch.

McKegg, applying the necessary offensive forecheck pressure on an early Rangers power-play, scooped up a how-do-you-do cough up by the former Peterborough Pete, Doornbosch, and flipped it over the shoulder of Mike Morrison.

Doornbosch was shown the door by Petes' General Manager Dave Reid for being a defensive disaster in his own end.

Potent on the power-play he may be, his defensive tendencies haven't seem to have left his repertoire in Kitchener.

Even with the score 3-2 with 20 seconds left in the period, and a late goal by the usual suspect McKegg, the Rangers never panicked over their 10-game gargantuan gold-mine of Ontario Hockey League points that the Otters have morphed into becoming in the eyes of the blueshirts.

Or make that redshirts. Kitchener sported their new third jerseys, donning the crest of a soldier's mug, honouring both the Canadian veterans from both world wars, as well as the popular Remembrance Day jerseys from the very first game of the Memorial Cup tournament held in the same Kitchener Memorial Auditorium in 2008.

Landeskog buried a rebound on an overtime man-advantage to send the Otters back home to once again contemplate what more they can do to beat their division rivals.

Ryan Murphy and Matt Tipoff tallied the other markers for the Rangers while Adam pelech added a bank-in job off Rangers' forward Ben Thomson's stick to go along with McKegg's deuce.

Monday's game also signalled a coming-out party for 2010 first-round draft pick Matia Marcantuoni (pictured).

While draft picks with much less fanfare and hype surrounding them racked up the points out of the starting gate in the O, (see Sarnia's Alex Galchenyuk and Belleville's Brendan Gaunce), Marcantuoni sputtered and despite getting his chances early, perpetually came up short when it came to putting the puck behind the keeper.

And while the kid may still only have one goal to his name so far, his play has caught fire, collecting that goal and five assists in his past three games while being promoted to second-line centre accompanying fellow rookie scoring sensation Tobias Rieder and Tipoff with the absence of Carolina's Jeff Skinner.

While the OHL's learning curve is steep, it seems the 16 year-old's hands have caught up with his blazing speed.

On this day, Marcantuoni's drive to the net gave Rieder and the Kitchener Rangers their go-ahead third goal of the match and was named first star for his efforts.

The Rangers can claim to become even more lethal as the next crop of stars in Marcantuoni and Rieder, 16 and 17 respectively, get more and more acclimatized to the league (Rieder's six goals in seven games have helped him claim eighth spot in league scoring).

Meanwhile, the Otters can circle their next date with the Rangers, November 27, on their calendars because something's gotta give.

And as always, the team across the pond eternally hopes they'll find the secret formula sooner, rather than later.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rangers Run and Gun to a 7-5 Victory over Barrie

Throw the tape out coach.
Yes, your Rangers scored seven after being held to a goose egg last week.

Yes, you chased OHL top tender Peter DiSalvo from his crease late in the game.

Yes, you got the powerplay rolling with a 2-6 effort after a quasi-horrendous opening two weekends with the man-up.

But you can be sure Steve Spott will be tossing this one faster than Kobe Bryant tosses a last-second swish.

"We had some players have a disgusting effort tonight," Spott told 570 News after the 7-5 win against the young, but tenacious Barrie Colts.

"There are nights where you can lose in this league and have a good night's sleep after; and you can win and not get a wink."

Spott's Rangers should be without some shut-eye tonight according to the coach's assessment, but it won't be due to the christening of Oktoberfest festivities in the region.

Surrendering five goals surely wasn't in the game plan, especially to the wide-eyed OHL break-in youngsters from Barrie (featuring a surprisingly large contingent of players from the region, including Tanner Pearson, Mark Scheifele and Colin Behenna, who had one, two, and three points respectively in Friday's matchup).

But thank the Rangers propensity to come out like gangbusters in the third period as has been the case in all four of Kitchener's wins this season.

With the way the Rangers come out into the third in each one of the victories, it almost signals a different team, a team that the coaching staff would much rather see sooner than later.

The blueshirts scored five times in the third, including two goals by Jason Akeson (pictured) 18 seconds apart from one another to start the frame.

Ryan Murphy added a wraparound dazzle, Matia Marcantuoni banged home his first in the uniform and Andrew Crescenzi capped off a fine physical game, netting a gimme in the final minutes to seal the win, for the now 4-1 Rangers.

But if Kitchener hopes to contend in any fashion come April, these 7-5 games will have to disappear.

Mike Morrison began the game, and after allowing three goals, was pulled in favour of starter Brandon Maxwell, less in discipline towards a poor game by Morrison, who made some admirable stops, and more to do with re-energizing a nonchalant squad who should have been firing on all cylinders to avenge a dreadful 4-0 loss at the hands of Owen Sound last weekend.

The team will get a chance to rectify their defensive lapses against an Erie squad they've victimized in the past, winning 7-3 in their third game of the season.

Tobias Rieder added two on the night for the Rangers, and Darren Archibald and Behenna produced deuces for the Colts while Pearson added another.

Championship teams find ways to win, and you can't fault the Rangers for overcoming their defensive failures to outgun their opponents.

But what happens when that offensive faucet runs dry?

When that time comes, those five goals against, will look awfully larger than they do in a scratched-out, by the skin of their teeth victory versus a rebuilding group of Colts in the regular season.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Attack Hand Rangers First Loss

There would be no cavalry galloping across the second period intermission to revive the Kitchener Rangers' ailing 3-0 hole entering the final frame, much like it had in the blueshirts' first three games, where the group found 10 goals over the past three third periods.

In fact, the Rangers couldn't even manage one in a 4-0 decision against a sizzling-hot Owen Sound Attack team which has reeled of three straight wins against Midwest division foes Kitchener, London, and Guelph.

Even more impressive is the air-tight defensive game the Attack have employed, surrendering only six goals in four games to start the season.

Rangers head coach Steve Spott and his crew walked into the Harry Lumley Bayshore Arena Saturday, perhaps expecting to replicate a lot of what last year bestowed upon the team, a six game season sweep, and instead was met with an entirely renewed and entirely revamped Attack squad that looked like a team possessed and hungry for revenge, signalling a role reversal of a year ago.

First round NHL pick Joey Hishon led the way, having a hand in three of the four markers by the Bayshore boys, adding a goal and two assists to dispell the notions of any lingering effects of injuries sustained earlier in the Colorado Avalanche training camp, as well as last year that kept the centreman to just 36 games with his mates.

Scott Stajcer (pictured) recorded his first shutout of the season, stopping 36 shots, and his boyhood Cambridge-based opposite at the other end of the ice, Brandon Maxwell, managed to halt 41 of 46.

The last goal to beat him on this night was an ugly one; as Maxwell went to bat the puck to the corner, the black disc had ideas of its own and deflected off the keeper's poking stick and into the cage.

The Rangers couldn't get their legs under them all night, as the crew went 0-5 on the power-play, and the Attack were much more fruitful in their man-advantage attempts, converting two of five.

A very unexpected and largely unassuming foe to start the campaign, if the Attack can keep their extraordinary defensive pace up, and their relentless puck-pursuing offence going throughout the duration of a full season, the Rangers just may have one more pesky Midwest-division rival on their plate in their hopes for a conference title.

Robby Mignardi, Garrett Wilson and Jesse Blacker contributed goals for Owen Sound, all three a part of the forgettable Bayshore season just one year ago.

It's got to make Rangers fans think, if a culture change is truly possible and sustainable in Owen Sound this year, the high-flying Kitchener team from one year ago, sans defensive powers John Moore, Dan Kelly, ex-Attack member Chris Mackinnon and perhaps Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin is also starting to look very different from their current selves.

The question quickly becomes, which team can sustain their impressive starts and elevate their season to greater heights, and command that coveted Western Conference title that the Rangers came so close to claiming one seemingly short year ago?

The Attack have put forth their nomination, and so far, the bid is standing up.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Rangers Continue Dominance over Erie with 7-3 Beating

It was familiar territory for Rangers fans.

The Kitchener Rangers were continuing their mastery over divisonal rivals Erie, with their 9th straight win against the Otters; a 7-3 thrasing, continuing last year's Otter slaughter of an eight-game season sweep of 2009-2010.

With one exception... free delicious winter smoothies?

With all the cheering and jeering that the Aud's spectators are known to dish to Rangers and visitors alike each Friday, a very new, and very different sound erupted from the stands when public address announcer Dave Schneider mentioned a Wendy's promotion that seemed to entice and delight the Rangers' faithful with unexpected glee.

Every stub-carrying attendee who mentions that the Rangers netted five against the Otters to Wendy's workers today receive a free small frosty.

Folks from Kitchener sure like their treats, don't they? Especially in the current economic climate, when they're free.

Take note Mr. Carl Zehr, the key to Kitchener's vote this coming election is in their stomachs.

It was fitting then, that the Otters would come to town when the Kitchener crowd receives a very rare, but nevertheless gratifying gratuity.

Kitchener and Erie stand in stark contrast in terms of marketing the on-ice product.

Erie can't seem to give their tickets away in a tough hockey market south of the border, let alone bait their fans with free provisions attached to their attendance.

Kitchener on the other hand has no trouble warming seats with bodies, who, judging by their audible reaction to Schneider's good tidings, apparently like to chill down once in awhile, even as October welcomed the area with a cool breeze Friday.

But even with the prospect of chilly snacks, the Rangers' following got their Friday-night filling of icy goodness in what has seemed to define the Rangers in the still-young season- a third period blitz.

Ryan Murphy (pictured), Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Tipoff all capitalized in the Rangers' new favourite frame to turn a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes into a 7-3 show-off.

Landeskog recorded two on the night, and Tipoff took a Ryan Murphy blueline blast off the chops- and converted the puck behind Otters keeper Chris Festarini via his martyred mug to cap off the seven goal outburst.

It was a night for the veterans to break out, as Jason Akeson, Andrew Crescenzi, and Michael Cattenaci all converted their firsts of the campaign.

Cattenaci and Akeson was akin to a chocolate and vanilla frosty, never failing to find each other last night, as each was threading no-look passes to the other all night long, with Akeson potting a slam-dunk back door pass from the Cat, and Catenacci wheeling for a highlight-reel, Matt Halischuk-esque, breakaway, backhand blitz in the first to put the Rangers ahead by two in the first.

David Shields, Anthony Luciani and Mitch Gaulton replied for the Otters, who drop to 1-3 on the year.

Don't look now, but the Kitchener crew have notched 18 goals in just their first three games.

That leads the Ontario Hockey League's Western Conference, tied with Sault Ste. Marie, who have played one more game than the Rangers.

The blueshirts are quickly proving that life without ex-snipers Jeremy Morin and Jeff Skinner isn't all doom and gloom that prognosticators had expected.

Tipoff, Landeskog, and Murphy are the emerging faces of the 2010-2011 season, and the return of either Morin and Skinner is quickly looking like the icing on an already structurally strong cake.

The Rangers will look to make it four straight to start the season when they face the red-hot Owen Sound Attack at the Bayshore Arena tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Four-Goal Third Period Lifts Rangers Past Storm

Two years ago, at the outset of the post-Memorial Cup-run rebuild, fans were advised to stay in their seats until the last ticks of the clock had run their course.

The Kitchener Rangers were young, but they had a flare for the dramatics, usually scoring in the last possible moments on unsuspecting opponents who thought they had their foot firmly on the throats of the blueshirt crew.

Flash forward to the present, specifically Sunday's 6-4 victory against arch-rival Guelph at the Sleeman Centre in front of 3,394, and you'll find a similar pattern emerging.

But these older and grizzled veterans have learned. They're starting to find the net earlier.


Just call them the third period throttle boys.

When those last 20 minutes are upon the boys in blue, they turn it up a notch.

A third-period four goal outburst on Sunday followed a third-period triple strike-delight versus Saginaw on Friday.

It seems when it matters most, the Rangers wake up just in time.

It didn't seem to matter that the Rangers were able to take a nap in the second frame, and Guelph's top trio of Peter Holland, Michael Latta and Taylor Beck combined for five points and helped pot three against starting goalkeeper Mike Morrison and the Rangers.

Beck, Latta, Holland and Cody McNaughton had the Storm up 4-2 after two.

But they were unable to keep pace with the Rangers' new favourite tradition featuring the third period feeding frenzy.

The Storm didn't help their cause by taking 10 minor infractions, with three in the Rangers' favourite frame.

Ryan Murphy arrived to his sophomore season by scoring twice in the final minutes, Matt Tipoff (pictured) added another and Tobias Rieder started it all off 3:24 into the final frame to together record four unanswered goals and leave the second-period-dominant Storm with some gaping jaws.

It's a dangerous game the Rangers are playing.

Teams in the Ontario Hockey League are not known for napping during games and still emerging with the W.

But the Rangers have managed to do it twice to open the campaign.

Coach Steve Spott will be looking for a complete 60-minute effort during practice this week if he wants the wins to rack up.

The afternoon affair lived up to its rivalry-renewed billing.

The Storm showed flashes of why they're considered to be a contender.

Their top line of Holland, Latta, and Beck can devastate opponents and may even be the best line in the league when each are hot.

But it was the Rangers' depth that wore down the star-heavy Storm.

Tipoff recorded two goals and a fight, Jamie Doornbosch notched his first as a Ranger, Murphy's two-goal outburst and Rieder's second goal in two games proved that the team down Highway 7 is more than just absentee-NHL busy stars; Jeremy Morin and Jeff Skinner.

Kitchener and Guelph will have many more chances to get re-acquanited, seven to be exact as the young season wears on.

Until then, the Rangers will need to devise a plan to stop the Storm's top three guns, as well as halt that annoying habit of sleeping on the job.

That third period throttle thing though... Spott may want to keep that new pattern intact.