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Memorial Cup host Rangers running full speed into OHL playoffs

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The Kitchener Rangers ignored their automatic berth in the Memorial Cup as host team and put together a 53-win season, which was more than any other club in the Canadian Hockey League.

The Western, Ontario and Quebec major junior leagues all commence playoffs this week. Three clubs will join the Rangers in the CHL championship tournament May 16-25 at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

The Rangers are the only team among the 48 in the playoffs that gets a Plan B to reach the Memorial Cup if they are eliminated in the post-season.

But head coach Peter DeBoer doesn't think his players will use that as crutch now because they haven't all year.

"Not once. Not a practice, not a game," DeBoer said Tuesday from Kitchener. "That surprised me as a coach because it's always a fear. But I never saw even the smallest inclination of that."

The Rangers open their first-round series Friday at home against the Plymouth Whalers, who won last year's Ontario Hockey League championship.

The OHL playoffs start Wednesday with the Belleville Bulls, the favourites to come out of the Eastern Conference, hosting the Peterborough Petes.

Steve Stamkos, the projected No. 1 pick in this year's NHL entry draft, and the Sarnia Sting take on the Windsor Spitfires starting Thursday.

The Oshawa Generals and John Tavares, touted to go first in the 2009 draft, start playoffs Friday against Ottawa.

If the Rangers win the OHL title, the runner-up earns a berth in the Memorial Cup.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League post-seasons kick off Friday.

The Gatineau Olympiques, Baie-Comeau Drakkar and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are favourites in the QMJHL, while the Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans, Vancouver Giants, Lethbridge Hurricanes and Calgary Hitmen are all teams to watch in the tight WHL.

The Vancouver Giants won the 2007 Memorial Cup as the host team.

The Rangers had to dodge a few slings and arrows over their season.

Forward Matt Halischuk, Canada's overtime hero in the gold-medal game at the world junior championship, missed over 20 games with a high ankle sprain suffered Jan. 19.

Veteran winger Nick Spaling sat out almost 20 games in December and January with mononucleosis.

So Justin Azevedo, the winner of the OHL's scoring race, goaltender Steve Mason acquired at the January trade deadline, and Kitchener's assorted foot soldiers carried the load admirably in the season's second half.

The Rangers were ranked No. 1 in the CHL 14 of the last 15 weeks of the season.

"It definitely gave me an idea of our depth and that we could count on that," DeBoer said. "We all know the playoff trail is a long one and you're going to face some adversity along the way. It definitely made us battle ready for this time of year."

The hidden blessing in Halischuk's injury was that he was able to rest following an intense and gruelling world junior championship.

"Six to eight weeks is a little too much rest for me, but hopefully it will help out down the road," Halischuk said.

When the New Jersey Devils draft pick was healthy enough to return to the lineup March 7, he was reunited with Azevedo and Spaling.

The trio's electricity re-ignited a power play that had been struggling.

"When you put those three on the ice, they just have this chemistry together that you can't explain," DeBoer said. "I haven't had too many lines over the years that have had that type of chemistry. It's something I want to run with because you don't get it very often."

Mason was also Halischuk's teammate on the Canadian junior team and was named top goaltender and MVP of the world junior championship.

Since then, Mason has twice been an emergency call-up to the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, although he didn't see any game action.

"He's such a pro and he carries himself well beyond his years," DeBoer said. "He's fit well into our dressing room as a teammate and as a leader. He's had as much an impact off the ice as he has on the ice."

The Rangers won both the OHL title and the Memorial Cup under DeBoer in 2003. Kitchener has never finished out of the playoffs or under .500 during his seven-year tenure as head coach.

He's twice been an assistant coach of Canada's junior team (1998, 2005). DeBoer has applied to Hockey Canada to be head coach of the Canadian team that will go for a fifth straight gold medal at the 2009 world junior championship in Ottawa.

Since a host team was introduced into the Memorial Cup format in 1983, the home club has won it eight times.

The London Knights (2005), Hull Olympiques (1997) and Kamloops Blazers (1995) won their respective league titles en route to the Cup.

The Ottawa 67's lost in the second round of the OHL playoffs in 1999 and had almost a month with no games before winning the Memorial Cup.

DeBoer prefers the former route over the latter.

"I'm not interested in running a month of practices," he said.

With a berth in the Memorial Cup a given, Halischuk says a league title is first and foremost in the players' minds.

"We've had the chemistry all year, so hopefully it keeps going here right into the playoffs," he said.

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