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OHL final first for Belleville, Kitchener and then Memorial Cup

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The Ontario Hockey League's championship series won't spell the end of the playoff line for the loser.

Both the Kitchener Rangers and Belleville Bulls will play in the Memorial Cup because Kitchener is already in as the host team of the Canadian Hockey League championship May 16-25.

But the Rangers and Bulls covet an OHL title for the swagger it would give them heading into the Memorial Cup, along with the knowledge they'd already beaten one of their opponents at the tournament more than once.

The best-of-seven OHL championship series opens Wednesday in Kitchener.

"You wouldn't want to enter the Memorial Cup on a losing streak,"Bulls captain Matt Belesky said Tuesday during a conference call. "It would mean a lot to go in through the front door."

The Quebec and Western league finals both open Friday. The Gatineau Olympiques and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies do battle for the QMJHL title.

The Lethbridge Hurricanes awaited Tuesday's Game 7 winner between the Tri-Cities Americans and Spokane Chiefs to find out their opponent in the WHL championship series.

"It's the second time in the last five years we've had the fortune of playing in the finals and there's nothing like it this time of year," Rangers coach Pete DeBoer said. "The eyes of the hockey world are on only six teams left playing across Canada."

The Rangers were the best team in the OHL's regular season ahead of the Bulls at No. 2.

Two prominent storylines in the final are the absence of Kitchener Rangers goaltender Steve Mason, who is currently rehabilitating from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his knee suffered April 8, and when centre Shawn Matthias will make his return to Belleville's lineup following mononucleosis.

Both are impact players on their respective squads and were teammates on the Canadian team that won a gold medal at the world junior championship in January.

Mason was Canada's starting goaltender in the playoff round and was chosen the tournament's best goaltender and MVP. Kitchener acquired his rights from the London Knights while he played in the world junior tournament.

He was twice called up by the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets as an emergency backup this season although he didn't see any game action.

Mason likes to handle and pass the puck a lot, which helped Kitchener's transition game.

But he left the ice late in the second period of Game 3 of a Western Conference semifinal against Sarnia. He was replaced by 18-year-old rookie Josh Unice, who has gone 5-1 in the post-season since then.

DeBoer expects Mason will be healthy enough to play in the Memorial Cup and places his confidence in Unice in the meantime.

"As a team, we're confident in either guy," he said. "At the end of the day, they both win games. Josh proved during the regular season he's one of the best in the league."

Matthias was a major contributor at both ends of the ice for Canada and set up the winning goal in overtime, scored by Rangers forward Matt Halischuk.

The Florida Panthers called Matthias up for a short stint in January. He scored his first two NHL goals versus Washington before he was returned to Belleville.

The six-foot-four, 213-pound forward has yet to play in the OHL post-season, but Bulls head coach George Burnett says he'll play in the final.

"We'd love to have Shawn in our lineup and we expect him in the series," Burnett said. "If he's not in there (Wednesday), other individuals will respond collectively to the opportunity presented to them."

The Bulls will be trying to get to Unice, while the Rangers aim to keep the puck away from the Bulls and firmly on the sticks of players such as Justin Azevedo, the OHL's leading scorer and MVP, Halischuk and Nick Spaling.

Those three players lead the OHL in post-season scoring.

"They have a lot of offence, they have the leading scorer and a lot of guys on that first page (of OHL statistics), so we've got to be prepared for them, which I think we are," said Belesky, who is the Bulls leading scorer in both the regular season and playoffs.

The two clubs are alternating games, so Game 2 will be in Belleville's Yardmen Arena, which is the only OHL arena with international-sized ice. It's four metres wider than other rinks around the league.

The Rangers went 2-0 against Belleville in the regular season and were ranked No. 2 in the CHL for most of the year.

The Rangers swept Plymouth and Sarnia in the playoffs before needing five games to get past the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Belleville opened the post-season by beating Peterborough in five games, then sweeping Barrie in four before downing the Oshawa in five.

Kitchener won OHL titles in 1981, 1982 and 2003 and won the Memorial Cup the latter two years. The Belleville Bulls won their lone OHL title in 1999.

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