|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.