'I think this team was cursed,' Kitchener Rangers coach says

KITCHENER, Ont. — Late Monday night, Steve Spott thought once again about what could have been.

If the Carolina Hurricanes hadn't kept 18-year-old centre Jeff Skinner, the head coach of the Kitchener Rangers would have had the NHL Calder Trophy candidate in his lineup. If the Chicago Blackhawks hadn't assigned 19-year-old winger Jeremy Morin to their American Hockey League affiliate, he would have had yet another proven goal scorer on the Ontario Hockey League team's roster.

"That was 97 goals out of our lineup and 97 goals that we had counted upon," said a subdued Spott. "Hindsight's 50-50 but maybe I should have loaded up [talent] at the [OHL trade] deadline last year. And that's the problem you run into because you expect everybody back and you expect things to go well and the next thing you know you're trying to replace 97 goals. And that's hard to do."

The Rangers needed those goals more than ever on Monday night when a 4-2 loss to the Plymouth Whalers knocked them out of the Western Conference playoffs in a thrilling Game 7 showdown before a raucous crowd of 6,668 at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

"From Day One I think this team was cursed," Spott said after the game. "I looked at that [roster] board in July and felt awful good about the group coming back, and I can still remember getting off that plane in Los Angeles [for the 2010 NHL entry draft] and hearing that Jeremy Morin had been traded to the Chicago Blackhawks [by the Atlanta Thrashers]. That, to me, was the beginning of what could have been some problems."

Expectations had been high for the Rangers at the start of the season, with many pundits picking the team to challenge for the OHL title after losing to the eventual Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires in Game 7 of last year's Western Conference final. They battled back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the Plymouth series, giving hope to Kitchener fans that somehow the West's third seed could pull off the victory. The Rangers battled back in Monday's game, rallying from a two-goal deficit to draw even with 5:59 remaining in the third period. But the euphoria was short-lived as a chintzy goal – a shot from Plymouth's James Livingston that hit a Rangers stick and took a strange bounce that fooled goalie Mike Morrison – put the Whalers back in the lead with just over three minutes to play. Tyler Brown finished off the scoring with an empty-net goal in the dying seconds.

To lose in the first round, even to a good Plymouth team, was another unwelcome bounce.

"I'm shocked," said Spott. "I thought the pre-season polls were great. But, ultimately, when Jeremy and Jeff didn't come back, you could throw the polls right out the window because now you're just trying to stay alive in a very tough conference."

The matchup between Kitchener and sixth-seeded Plymouth pitted two clubs accustomed to playing tight games against each other. In the regular season, the largest goal differential in games involving the two clubs was a paltry two goals.

The Whalers, who thought they might have Tyler Seguin this season before the Boston Bruins decided to keep the No. 2 overall pick, won't have much time to celebrate the series win over the Rangers. Plymouth begins its second-round series with the top-ranked Owen Sound Attack on Thursday night.

While having to play the season without Morin and Skinner was a blow to the Rangers' offence, Kitchener received a late-season gift when the Toronto Maple Leafs sent forward Jerry D'Amigo its way. D'Amigo, who left NCAA hockey last fall after signing an entry-level contract with the Leafs, spent the first half of the season with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. In the regular season with the Rangers, D'Amigo averaged more than a point per game with 12 goals and 16 assists in 21 games. He carried that scoring through to the playoffs with six goals – including the tying goal in Game 7 – and three assists for nine points.

"I thought with Jerry coming in that might give us a boost," said Spott. "And it did for a while, but ultimately we weren't able to get the job done."

In addition to D'Amigo, Kitchener still had Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog, expected by many to be a top five pick in this year's NHL entry draft, and star defenceman Ryan Murphy, also a top draft prospect. Both Landeskog and Murphy showed why they're rated so high throughout the series, particularly in Game 7. Throughout the game, Murphy used his speed to carry the puck on end-to-end rushes as effortlessly as being out for a Sunday afternoon skate on the Grand River that winds through Kitchener-Waterloo. Landeskog used his six-foot-one, 207-pound frame to create room on the ice and eventually scored the first Rangers goal against Plymouth netminder Scott Wedgewood, who had been unbeatable through two periods.

Landeskog said he hoped a longer playoff run would have helped showcase his talents a little longer for NHL scouts, like former Windsor Spitfires forward Taylor Hall did before being selected No. 1 overall at the 2010 draft. Last season, Hall strengthened his case to be taken by the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 1 pick after a long playoff run that was capped by his second straight MasterCard Memorial Cup MVP performance.

"The better the team does, the better the individual does too, it goes hand-in-hand," Landeskog said. "But saying that, I can't just look blindly at the draft. I'm disappointed we lost with the team we had and as a hockey player you want to go as far as you can."

Almost an hour after the game ended, Landeskog was still in his equipment talking to fans outside the dressing room. He stood there signing autographs, shaking hands and posing for pictures with kids. By the end of the night the Swedish teenager looked like he wanted to personally thank and say goodbye to everyone in Kitchener.

"I wish I could," said the Rangers captain. "They've done so much for me here. I if come back here next year, I won't be sad at all. This is the greatest place to be…it's been an emotional last half-hour here and it will probably be emotional here tonight, too.

"A lot of us were crying our eyes out. It was tough to look at that logo maybe – for some of the guys – for the last time."

No one was more devastated by the loss than overage forward Jason Akeson, who won an OHL title with the Rangers in 2008. The Orleans, Ont., native tried hard to keep his composure while running the gauntlet interviews, his eyes red and watery.

"It's one of those things were you're going to look back and you'll have a golf ball in your throat [thinking about it]," said Akeson, who tied for the lead in OHL scoring this year. "You can't change it and things happen for a reason. We're in mourning right now."

As the final buzzer rang, Landeskog skated over to console Morrison, who had been the backup during the regular season, playing in only 27 games. The 18-year-old goalie was called into duty in Game 5 with Kitchener down 3-1 in the series and starting netminder Brandon Maxwell struggling. Asked if he questioned himself for not putting Morrison in sooner, Spott justified his decision.

"Brandon's our starter and had been through that since Day One," Spott said. "That's something that I'll have to wrestle with, but ultimately, I'm a believer in trust. I believe in going with the people who helped get you there and Brandon is that guy, he's a character kid and no one wants to win more than Brandon. But when you're down 3-1 [in the series], drastic times call for drastic measures and I felt I needed to shock the group."

And while putting Morrison in net provided the desired effect in helping the Rangers rally, nothing could quite prepare Spott's team for the shock of losing Game 7 on home ice.

"I'm still a bit empty from the playoff loss," Landeskog said. "It's going to be tough to swallow this."