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Guelph, Erie benefit from blockbusters but only one can win Western final

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Forward Kerby Rychel of the Guelph Storm. Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.

GUELPH — Kerby Rychel and Brendan Gaunce were the most coveted players available for trade in the Ontario Hockey League this season. They are veterans of the post-season, first-round NHL picks with international experience and all the intangibles that accompany that kind of pedigree.

Their respective new teams paid a hefty price – a mélange of players and picks – to bring them into the fold, the two missing pieces of a puzzle their fans hope reveals a picture of a league title and Memorial Cup berth.

But only one team can win. At the end of this series one general manager will be left to reassess this season and restock picks. 

At present, Erie’s Gaunce and Guelph’s Rychel are opponents in the Western Conference final, just two steps away from that end goal. Game 1 of the series was Thursday night and both made significant contributions, though it was Guelph that skated away with the 5-4 victory at home.

Back with their former teams – Gaunce in Belleville and Rychel in Windsor – they were kingpins. Now, they’re talented cogs in what looked like two all-star teams showing off their skills in a see-saw contest.

“Back and forth, both teams had leads and both sides created their opportunities," said Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch. "Certainly, with these two teams, I didn't expect it to be that high-scoring.

"Our guys can skate. So can theirs. I'm fine with that."

In total there are 18 NHL draft picks skating in this series and the lineup is a who’s who of the league scoring leaders, including top scorer Connor Brown (Erie, 128 points), overage forward of the year Dane Fox (Erie, 107 points), Scott Kosmachuck (Guelph, 101 points), the projected top NHL draft pick in 2015, Connor McDavid (Erie, 99 points) and Rychel (90 points) .

“There are a lot of good hockey players out on this ice,” said Rychel, the 19th-overall pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013. “It’s crazy, (Erie) has Brendan Gaunce on their third line right now and he’s a first round NHL pick. He’s a great player. Both teams are really deep so it’s going to be a good series.”

Unlike Rychel, who was familiar with the Western Conference playing in Windsor, Gaunce had spent his three previous years with Belleville before the trade to Erie. Known as one of the OHL’s premier defensive forwards Gaunce, who turned 20 in March, said it took him some time to get used to the more free-wheeling hockey played by the Otters.

“It was hard to come in from a different system,” said Gaunce, the 26th-overall pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2012. “We do play a highly open game right now because of the talent we have. I didn’t change my game too much coming here and I don’t think (Knoblauch) wanted me to change my game because they brought me in for that reason.

“When I first got here he said, ‘Don’t change anything.’ So, I’ve tried to keep on that path.”

Both players said they’ve settled down in their new cities. It’s almost been a reversal of fortunes for the pair as Rychel went from his home in big, U.S. border town Windsor to Guelph which has roughly half the population.

“There are a lot of good restaurants here and I like to eat food,” said Rychel with a laugh.

He was traded from the Spitfires along with defenceman Nick Ebert who also billeted with him in Windsor, so the adjustment was a little easier.

“I lived with him in Windsor and I live with him here so it’s good to have someone to go through it all with,” said Rychel. “We’re best friends, so that’s great.”

Gaunce went from the small community of Belleville, Ont., to Pennsylvania’s fourth largest city in Erie. The move also meant he was much farther from his home in Markham, Ont.

“It’s different,” said the centre. “You’re a lot farther away and it’s not a small community anymore it’s more of a big, open hockey market, but it was a good change for me to get out of my comfort zone.”

Still, there is comfort for Gaunce on the ice and in the post-season. Unlike Guelph, which has consistently made the playoffs since 1991-92, the Otters have struggled to make the post-season of late. Prior to this run they had missed the playoffs two years straight and five times in the last 10 years. For a number of the Otters, this is their first foray into the post-season and Gaunce’s experience – particularly in captaining the Bulls to the Eastern Conference final in 2012-13 – will be invaluable.

“I think we just need to stay on an even keel,” said Gaunce. “You can see, even in this game, emotions run pretty high and it’s tough to keep your emotions down when the crowd is as loud as it was. I think if we’re playing 60 minutes it has to be 60 minutes on an even keel basis and then think about the game after – you can’t get yourself lost in a game – that’s a big thing we have to learn.”

Even with all the skill and potential NHL talent on the ice in this series, Rychel believes both teams are approaching the challenge the same way.

“I don’t think too many guys care about goals and assists at this point,” said the 19-year-old winger. “We all have the same goal of winning an OHL championship.”

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