If you had told head coach and GM Steve Spott a month ago that his Kitchener Rangers would have the defending OHL and Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires on the brink of elimination, he says he would have smiled.
“I wouldn’t have believed you,” said the coach. “We’re doing something right now that was certainly unexpected, but saying that, I’m not going to apologize for it because of the way we have played in the playoffs this year.”
But the Rangers have stunned everyone in the OHL by jumping to a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference final over the heavily favoured Spitfires. The Rangers, who last won an OHL championship in 2008, can sweep the Spitfires out of the playoffs with a win in Game 4 of the series on Tuesday night at home.
“The whole focus for our guys is our game and not to get derailed from playing our game,” said Spott. “We play an up-tempo game, I think we defend well in our own end and we’re disciplined… they understand that if they stay focused and not get goaded into taking penalties after the whistle that we can play with anybody and I’d like to think that our discipline has been the difference in the series so far.”
The Rangers have gone 5-for-22 on the power play while limiting the Spitfires to only one goal on 10 chances in their three games.
One thing Spott doesn’t want to see on Tuesday night is a repeat of their nervous Game 6 home performance against the London Knights in the conference semifinal. The Knights won the game 5-3 to force Game 7.
“We had heard that (Game 6) sold-out in seven minutes when tickets went on sale, it became bigger than Bon Jovi or U2 here in Kitchener,” said Spott. “For us we played that up a little bit and I think the kids became tense and in Game 7 against London it was a calm environment and the kids were having fun.”
Goaltending has been the weak link for the Spitfires in the final, despite the fact Windsor GM Warren Rychel traded to shore up the position this season. At January’s OHL trade deadline, the Spitfires completed a seven-player deal with the Belleville Bulls to bring in sophomore netminder Phillipp Grubauer. But the German netminder lost the first two games of the series and was replaced by Troy Passingham for Game 3, which they also lost.
“Playoffs are about goaltending,” said Spott. “If you have average goaltending you’re not going to win in the playoffs, so we’ve challenged our goaltenders every year to be better than the guy 200-feet away from him.”
And goaltender Brandon Maxwell has done just that for the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed going 11-5 in the post-season with a .905 save percentage and 3.58 goals against average.
The Spitfires have outshot the Rangers 160-105 in all three games, but it’s the Rangers who have converted their chances by outscoring Windsor 17-11.
“We had done enough scouting and pre-scouting to know that the one hole we had to be aware of was (Windsor’s) back end and we’ve been able to exploit that,” said Spott. “It’s going to be important that we continue to get pucks to either (Grubauer) or Passingham and be around the net.”
Sophomore centre Jeff Skinner continues carry the Rangers offence with a goal per game along with 11 assists in 16 playoff games to lead the OHL in post-season scoring with 27 points. He’s being helped by veteran Chris MacKinnon and Swedish import Gabriel Landeskog.
“It’s a young group in here and confidence for a young team is critical,” said Spott. “When you go into an environment like Windsor, playing against the defending Memorial Cup champions to win there, gave us a little more playoff experience and the belief that, ‘yeah we can win another game at home’ and thankfully we’ve done that.”