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Kitchener, Belleville forge dream OHL championship

by Brad Holland

Superstar goaltender Steve Mason was injured in the second round of the 2008 OHL playoffs, forcing him to turn the starters' job over to rookie netminder Josh Unice. Mason had amassed a 5-0 record before the injury.
The Kitchener Rangers don’t seem to be satisfied with the idea of backing into the 2008 Memorial Cup Final.

As Memorial Cup host, Kitchener has held a guaranteed berth in the annual CHL Championship for years now, but with their league-leading totals of 53 wins and 110 points -- both franchise records -- anything less than the triple crown will be a big disappointment.

The Rangers are looking to become the first team since the 2005 London Knights to win its league’s regular-season championship, its league's playoff, and the Memorial Cup Championship all in the same season.

However, the Belleville Bulls don’t seem content with backing in, either. They are still looking to stem the Rangers’ tide.

On paper at least, the Bulls seem every bit capable. But it will not be easy, as the two teams were very similar both statistically and in the standings this season.

The Bulls and the Rangers, the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively, were the only two teams in the OHL this season to crack 100 points. They represent two of only three teams to score at least 280 goals (the Oshawa Generals led the league with 290), and were two of only three teams to allow 175 goals or less: the Bulls allowed 175, the Rangers allowed 174, and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds led the league with 173.

In the playoffs, the teams have been able to continue their dominant play. The Bulls scored 63 goals and allowed only 27 (a plus-36 differential) in winning 12 of 14 games.

By comparison, the Rangers scored 69 goals and allowed 29 (a plus-40 differential), in compiling a 12-1 record.

The Rangers’ only playoff loss came at the hands of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Western Conference Final.

In addition, the two teams are buoyed by very balanced attacks. The Rangers currently place six skaters to the Bulls’ five in the top 20 OHL scorers for the 2007-08 postseason.

The story doesn’t end there. The teams have relied on consistent goaltending throughout the playoffs.

Bulls goaltender Mike Murphy has stopped 372 of the 399 shots he’s faced for a .932 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA in 14 starts.

Current Rangers goaltender Josh Unice, a third-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, has been almost as good. He has played to a 2.08 GAA and a.921 save percentage in nine appearances.

Rookie netminder Josh Unice has taken over for Steve Mason.
The Bulls may have dodged a bullet, however, as the Rangers’ No. 1 goaltender, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Steve Mason, was injured during the second-round series against Sarnia. Unice took over in Game 3 against the Sting.

Mason had been acquired in a mid-season trade with the London Knights, and had been playing some of the best hockey of his career – a 5-0 record with a 1.92 GAA and a .946 in five playoff starts – before the injury.

Which of the two goaltenders – the Bulls’ Murphy or the Rangers’ Unice – can manage to stem the offensive tide most effectively will likely see his team emerge as the 2008 OHL Champion later next week.

What’s certain is that with the skill woven through the lineups, these teams will get their chances to score. A big goal, a big save, a missed opportunity -- these could be the only things that separate two powerhouse teams, in the end.

Around the OHL –
The line of Matt Halischuk, Justin Azevedo and Nick Spaling has combined for an astounding 75 points through only 13 playoff games, making them by far the most productive trio in the 2008 OHL playoffs. … P.K. Subban, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, currently leads all blueliners in points in the 2008 postseason with six goals and 16 points through 14 games, while another Bulls’ defenseman, Nigel Williams (a mid-season acquisition from the Saginaw Spirit), has put up five goals and 12 points through 14 games … Rangers’ D-man Yannick Weber leads the Rangers’ defense with four goals and 13 points in 13 games thus far in the playoffs. … This past Friday, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the OHL congratulated former Greyhounds forward Art Dorazio on the occasion of his 100th birthday. He is the oldest living alumnus of the Greyhounds, and credits a somewhat interesting health tip to his longevity: “I tell them: it costs money,” he told “But no, I eat two apples a day. I eat an apple at lunch and an apple at suppertime.” An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but two keeps you scoring goals into your 100s. Congrats, Art.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

It’s an all-Telus Division QMJHL Final, and well deserved.

Telus Division No. 1 seed Rouyn-Noranda swept Saint John while No. 3-seeded seeded Gatineau finished off Halifax in four straight games, setting up a championship series between two of the top three teams in the regular season.

It also sets up a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the 2008 playoffs, as Rouyn-Noranda boasts a perfect 12-0 record heading into the final and Gatineau has a 12-2 record.

Rouyn-Noranda is looking to extend history with this series, as the past four teams to win the QMJHL’s President’s Cup were ranked No. 1 in the regular season by points. Lewiston (2007), Moncton (2006), Rimouski (2005) and Gatineau (2004) all garnered both the regular-season and league-championship titles.

Gatineau is looking to write its own page of history.

Series begins Friday, May 2.

Around the QMJHL –
With 10 points in four games in the semifinal series, Claude Giroux extended his league-leading totals to 12 goals and 37 points in only 14 games. Second is Saint John Sea Dogs forward Scott Howes, who amassed 15 goals and 26 points in his own 14 games before falling to Giroux and the Olympiques. The Acadie-Bathurst duo of Mathieu Perreault (22 in 12) and Tomas Svoboda (20 in 12) sit third and fifth, respectively, in playoff scoring. Among active players, Giroux is chased most closely by teammate Paul Byron, the fourth-leading scorer in the league, who has 15 goals and 20 points in the playoffs. … Rouyn-Noranda is paced by top scorers Brett Morrison, who has five goals and 20 points in 12 games, and defenseman Sebastien Piche, with 18 assists and 20 points in 12 games. … Huskies goaltender Maxim Gougeon has now run his playoff winning streak to 12 consecutive games, playing to a 2.21 GAA and a .927 save percentage along the way. … Home-ice advantage could be big in the final series, as the Huskies took three of four from the Olympiques on home ice and the Olympiques swept the four games played in Gatineau. In addition, the Huskies will look to protect against the dangerous Gatineau power play, which converted on an astounding 42.9 percent of its chances while in Rouyn-Noranda. Gatineau was good for 12 percent at home, and an overall power-play ranking of 26.1 percent in the eight-game regular-season series.

Western Hockey League

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Tri-City Americans and the Spokane Chiefs are downright sick of one another.

The Chiefs and the Americans will face off one last time in 2007-08, their 19th meeting of the season, on Tuesday. Up for grabs will be the Eastern Conference Championship, a berth in the WHL Final, and a shot at the 2008 Memorial Cup Championship.

If it was their first meeting of the season with something on the line, the players might have been nervous. At this point however, pressure is old hat for the two teams. In 12 regular-season matchups, the Americans won six of the first eight before the Chiefs charged hard late and took three of the final four down the stretch.

In fact, in the regular season’s final weeks, the Chiefs were in dogged pursuit of the U.S. Division, the Eastern Conference, and the WHL’s overall regular-season title, possessed by the Americans almost from the starting gate to the finish line.

The two teams met on March 3 with all the marbles at stake. Tri-City prevailed by a 2-1 margin, sealing the division, the conference and the league in one fell swoop.

Their next and final meeting of 2007-08 will render that contest all but meaningless.

After exhibition games, 12 regular-season games in which the Americans took the season series 7-5 and outscored the Chiefs 33-32 along the way, and now six hard-fought playoff contests, the end is finally in sight.

For the Americans, it’s a shot at holding the line; for the Chiefs, it’s a shot at redemption.

For both teams, it will be the difference between a successful season and a disappointment.

For both teams, it will be one game for an entire season.

Around the WHL –
WHL Player of the Week honors went to Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Carter Bancks for the week ending April 27. He had back-to-back two-goal games during the past week and played to a plus-4 rating as the Hurricanes swept the No. 1-seeded Calgary Hitmen out of the playoffs. Bancks, a left winger from Marysville, British Columbia, had 15 goals and 45 points in 70 regular-season games with the Hurricanes this season. … Hurricanes goaltender Juha Metsola made a strong case for Player of the Week honors as well this week, as the Finnish netminder won both his two starts and stopped 48 of the 50 shots, good for a .960 save percentage. He played to a 1.00 GAA with one shutout along the way, lowering his playoff GAA to 2.01, good for fourth in the 2008 WHL postseason. … Heading into Game 7 in Tri-City tonight, goaltender Chet Pickard of the Americans and Dustin Tokarski of the Spokane Chiefs lead the WHL playoffs in almost every conceivable category, with Tokarski holding a slight edge. He leads the league in minutes (1046), GAA (1.43), save percentage (.944), and is tied for first in shutouts (3). He sits behind only Pickard in shots against, and the two sit behind only Lethbridge Hurricanes’ goaltender Metsola with 11 wins apiece. Metsola has started and won each of the Hurricanes’ 12 victories. Both goaltenders will be highly sought-after prospects heading into the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

United States Hockey League

The Waterloo Blackhawks have now outscored their playoff opponents – Cedar Rapids and Chicago – by a 24-9 margin en route to six consecutive playoff wins, and a berth in the Robertson Cup Final.

Now, all they need is an opponent.

The Omaha Lancers are hoping on Wednesday to give them their final opponent, while the Lincoln Stars hope to keep them waiting longer than they expect. Omaha currently leads Lincoln two games to one in their best-of-five series.

Omaha rushed out to a 2-0 series lead with two quick wins against the Stars, but Lincoln made things interesting with a 6-3 victory Sunday afternoon, spoiling the Lancers’ efforts at a sweep in front of their own home crowd. The series shifts back to Lincoln.

The Stars’ All-Star goaltender, David Reekie, looked like the goaltender who took home Goaltender of the Year honors this season, stopping 42 of 45 shots in a 6-3 defeat of the Lancers. But, he allowed two goals or more for the sixth consecutive game in these playoffs.

Reekie is playing to a 3.00 GAA and a .908 save percentage in six playoff starts after compiling a 2.01 GAA and a.935 save percentage in 38 regular-season appearances.

He will need to return to his regular-season form if he and his Lancers expect to take the next two games and earn a showdown with the Blackhawks.

Around the USHL – The Lancers have outshot their playoff opponents in 17 of 22 periods thus far in the 2008 postseason. … Chicago Steel goaltender Rob Madore did everything he could to help his team stave off elimination Sunday, save heading out of his crease to score the overtime game-winning goal himself. Madore stopped 60 of 63 Blackhawks shots in the deciding Game 3 when Keegan Meuer scored at 5:26 of the first overtime on the Lancers’ eighth shot of the extra frame. Madore was most impressive in the second period of Game 3, as he turned aside 25 Lancer shots and allowed only one goal. He finished the playoffs with a 3.21 GAA but a .930 save percentage, with three wins and one shutout. … Waterloo’s best players in the regular season have been their best players in the playoffs, contributing to their 6-0 run to the Robertson Cup Final. USHL Defenseman of the Year Blake Kessel leads the team in scoring with one goal and seven points in only six games, while regular season goal-scoring leader Billy Maday is tied for his team’s playoff lead in goals with three in six games. In addition, goaltender Matthew DiGirolamo has raised his game to another level in the playoffs, stopping almost 94 percent of the shots fired his way and allowing a miniscule 1.34 goals against per game.

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