Saturday, December 8, 2018

Playoffs heating up in junior hockey

Knights and Rangers are familiar foes 
By Mark Schadenberg
The top four teams in the OHL’s Western Conference final standings are fittingly the final four combatants – London Knights (50 wins, 105 points), Plymouth Whalers (42, 93), Owen Sound Attack (44, 94) and Kitchener Rangers (39, 87).
It’s interesting to see that the No 2 seed had fewer wins and points than the No 3 team as Plymouth won the West Division and the Attack were second in the MidWest to London. Plymouth might be the best club in the OHL currently with a four-game sweep of the Sarnia Sting (outscoring them 24-8) to improve to 20-1 dating back to Feb 8.
The Knights – Rangers series should be entertaining as Kitchener is peaking at the right time, especially with the return of keeper John Gibson from a nagging injury.   
Here’s an excerpt from the Waterloo Region Record newspaper, talking about Gibson (Anaheim second round selection in 2011), who missed a ton of time after the world juniors:
The Pittsburgh puckstopper — who led the U.S. to world junior gold in January — skated through the first round of the post-season against the Guelph Storm with a tidy 1.61 goals against average and a league best .962 save percentage. At one point, in the quarter-finals, Gibson was just shy of posting eight consecutive periods of shutout hockey.
“We saw what he did at Christmas against the best players in the world and we saw what he did against Guelph,” said Kitchener head coach and GM Steve Spott, whose club eliminated the Storm in five games in the west quarter-finals.
“When he came back from the world juniors, he was dealing with some pain. Now that he’s had that extended time off, he’s healthy and his mental mindset is real good.”
Gibson missed 18 matches down the stretch with a hip/groin injury and was activated with about a week to go in the season. Since then, the 19-year-old has been improving every game. His performance hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Forest City.
“John is a very competitive person and I think he thrives under pressure,” said Spott. “At the same time as the Rangers, we have to take some of the load off of his plate and do a better job 200 feet away from him.”
Kitchener also features defenceman Ryan Murphy, who played four games for the Carolina Hurricanes as recently as six weeks ago, plus Tobias Reider, Matt Puempel, Radek Faksa, Leafs prospect Josh Leivo, along with Justin Bailey who is highly touted for the 2013 draft.
Meanwhile, London won 25 at home and 25 on the road in the regular season before ousting Saginaw in the conference quarters. 
London’s potent offence to start the post-season was paced by Alex Broadhurst (4-5=9) and Max Domi (3-4=7) in a four-game sweep of Saginaw. Broadhurst is drafted by Chicago, while Domi and Bo Horvat (three goals versus Saginaw) are two London forwards which could be selected in the first round of the June NHL draft bonanza.
Impressing everyone was Chris Tierney (1-5=6) and Remi Elie (3-2=5). Elie is also draft eligible this year, while Tierney parlayed his regular season and playoff success into an entry-level contract with the San Jose Sharks this week.
With the soon-to-be-returning defenceman Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh high-end pick and two-time Team Canada world junior) still not ready to go, London continues with its depth on the blue line – Olli Maatta, Nikita Zadorov, Tommy Hughes (signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers recently), Justin Sefton, the versatile Tyler Ferry and Miles Liberati, plus Dakota Mermis with four points in the opening round.
London can roll four lines after considering the contributions of Matt and Ryan Rupert, Seth Griffith (returning from a hand injury), Josh Anderson, Kyle Platzer and Brett Welychka.
Goalie Anthony Stolarz has post-season marks of 1.57 and save percentage of .946. Stolarz recently signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Game 1 is Friday at 7:30 at Budweiser Gardens; while Game 2 is also in London, Sunday at 1:30. View the action on Rogers TV.
 Picture: Tommy Hughes and I back in Movember.

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