KITCHENER, Ont. - The Kitchener Rangers proved they're champs, not chokers.
The Memorial Cup-host Rangers finally put Belleville away in the Ontario Hockey League final Monday night before 6,754 at the Aud, beating the Bulls 4-1 to claim the OHL playoff crown in seven games.
It sure wasn't easy.
The Rangers let a 3-0 series lead slip away but turned in a commanding performance in Game 7 to ensure they enter the Memorial Cup through the front door as both hosts and OHL champs.
Rangers top gun Justin Azevedo was named OHL playoff MVP after leading the league with 36 playoff points.
Brandon Mashinter, Nick Spaling, Mike Duco and Nazem Kadri scored for the Rangers, who open the four-team Memorial Cup tournament against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Gatineau Olympiques on Friday.
The Bulls also advanced to the national championship tournament as the second Ontario entry. They play the Western Hockey League champion Spokane Chiefs on Saturday afternoon.
Belleville showed much heart in beating the top-ranked club in Canada three straight times to force Game 7.
But the Rangers dominated Monday night in winning the franchise's fourth OHL playoff title, including crowns in 1981, 1982 and 2003.
Belleville goalie Mike Murphy, the OHL netminder of the year, kept the Rangers from blowing the game open in the first last night.
Murphy made several outstanding stops as the Rangers outshot the Bulls 21-8. The playoff debut of Bulls star centre Shawn Matthias, who hadn't played since March 14 due to mono, had little effect out of the gate.
The Rangers struck in the 18th minute, when Scott Timmins carried an Eric Tangradi giveaway to the Belleville net. While a delayed penalty call caused the Bulls to let up, Mashinter swept in the loose puck to make it 1-0.
In the second, Murphy couldn't locate a rebound. A diving Spaling swept it home from the slot to make it 2-0.
Matthias gave the Bulls life with a power-play goal mid-way through the game. His snap shot beat Rangers goalie Josh Unice to the blocker side.
Six minutes into the third, Murphy blocked a Kadri drive but the puck flipped high and bounced in as the net was knocked off. After a lengthy video review, the goal stood and a nervous Kitchener crowd exhaled a little.
Duco added an empty-netter.
Unice flung his mask and stick in the air in celebration as time expired.
The Rangers were without blue-liners Yannick Weber (ankle) and Robert Bortuzzo (shoulder). Forward Scott Tregunna filled in on defence.