KITCHENER, Ont. - The Kitchener Rangers restored their confidence and the faith of their fans in time for the Memorial Cup.
The host club opens the 2008 MasterCard Memorial Cup on Friday (7 p.m. ET) against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Gatineau Olympiques. The Rangers faced a deflating scenario heading into Monday's Game 7 of the Ontario Hockey League final against the Belleville Bulls.
Up 3-0 in the series and leading 4-1 in Game 4, the Rangers lost that game and the next two.
While Kitchener was already in the Memorial Cup as host, to lose Game 7 at home and become only the third team in OHL history to blow a three-game lead in a playoff series would not have set the Rangers up well for their own tournament.
But the Rangers head into their next game at the Memorial Auditorium with the happy imprint of a 4-1 win and a 50-shot output in their heads.
"It was important for us to get that win, from a confidence point of view," Rangers coach Peter DeBoer said Thursday. "We needed Game 7, more importantly from the perspective of how we played."
The Western Hockey League champion Spokane Chiefs and the Bulls, the OHL runner-up, square off Saturday (4 p.m. ET).
The team with the best record at the conclusion of the round robin earns a bye to the final May 25, while the second-and third-place teams meet in the May 23 semifinal.
The Rangers, ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League 15 of the last 16 weeks of the season, may be the prognosticator's pick of the tournament, but injuries on defence and an unusual situation in goal cloud their crystal ball.
Defencemen Yannick Weber (ankle) and Robert Bortuzzo (shoulder) are listed as day-to-day. Winger Scott Tregunna has been filling in on the blue-line.
If and when goaltender Steve Mason will replace Josh Unice in net will be a question following the team for the entire tournament.
Unice, a Chicago Blackhawks' draft pick, took over the starter's job April 8 when Columbus Blue Jackets' property Mason tore a ligament in his knee.
"This tournament doesn't end for another week and a half. We've got a lot of time to continue (Mason's) rehab," DeBoer said. "It'll be a nice problem to have if we get to that point."
DeBoer and Olympiques counterpart Benoit Groulx know each other well as they were both assistant coaches to Brent Sutter on the Canadian junior team that went undefeated against Russia in last summer's eight-game Super Series.
DeBoer's Rangers beat Groulx's Olympiques in the final of the 2003 Memorial Cup in Quebec City.
Both have applied to Hockey Canada to coach Canada at the 2009 world junior championship in Ottawa - DeBoer as head coach and Groulx as an assistant.
The Olympiques weren't the favourites to come out of the QMJHL, but Groulx was able to get the best effort out of his team at the right time of the season.
The key to Friday's opener will be which team's No. 1 line can assert its dominance.
Kitchener's Matt Halischuk, Justin Azevedo and Nick Spaling were the best forward trio in the OHL, while Gatineau's Claude Giroux, Paul Byron and Matthew Pistilli were tops in the QMJHL.
"For us, it will important to play our style of hockey, which is based on speed," Groulx said. "We want to keep this game as tight as we can."
While the Bulls were still smarting from their Game 7 loss in the OHL final, they could take solace in extending a series that initially looked like it would be over early.
Belleville also had the experience of recently playing four high-pressure games in Kitchener and beating the Rangers once in their own building.
"Unlike the other three teams here, we're the only team that lost our last game," head coach George Burnett said. "We believe as a group we're here for a reason and deserve to be here, but the mental challenge of losing Game 7 on Monday night and regrouping on Tuesday and coming back to Kitchener, where we've spent a considerable amount of time in the hotel here the last few weeks, is probably the biggest challenge.
"Knowing the environment that you're playing in should be a benefit to our team."
Burnett coached the Guelph Storm to an OHL title and to the Memorial Cup final in 1998.
Bill Peters of the Chiefs is the only one of the four who hasn't been a head coach in this tournament before, so he's done his homework by contacting WHL coaches and general managers who have.
"I went through two legal pads, actually, talking to those coaches and I've got writer's cramp," Peters said.
The tournament is sold out in this city of 250,000 less than an hour's drive west of Toronto. The "Aud," as it is nicknamed, holds 7,000 spectators.
Gatineau Olympiques goaltender Ryan Mior expects an intense atmosphere Friday.
"We've had the opportunity to play against the Quebec Remparts in Quebec City and I don't know if you've heard, but they're pretty crazy there," he said.
"Quebec fans are pretty crazy and I've witnessed that so we'll see what happens here in Ontario. I think it's going to be pretty cool to see."
Notes: 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.