The return of NHL training camps also means hockey at all levels is starting up again. For smaller cities and towns in North America, that also means each of the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) three regional divisions, the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) have started again. The OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, considered by many to be one of the most storied and famous in the country, kicked off their 60th anniversary season on Sept. 30, but they haven’t met expectations in the first two games. For a team that upset the London Knights in the first round last season, they came out of the gates behind.
In Friday’s home and season opener, they looked sluggish from the initial puck drop and were outmatched and outmanned by the Sarnia Sting. The following night, they began the game better but ultimately came up just short against the Owen Sound Attack.
Sting Dominate Rangers in 6-3 Loss
The Kitchener Memorial Auditorium is an old building. Opened in 1963 when the Rangers moved down Highway 7 from Guelph to Kitchener, It has seen two Memorial Cup championships in 1982 and 2003, a further four OHL Championships (1981, 1982, 2003, and 2008), and has been the training ground for some of the game’s greatest players. Larry Robinson, Al MacInnis, Paul Coffey, and Scott Stevens have passed through the gates of 400 East Avenue, as have modern stars Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and John Gibson. Affectionately known to all of us as “the Aud,” it’s cramped and crowded and always smells as if stale popcorn were locked in an attic for a year.
A building with as much character and grit as the Aud deserves a team with similar attributes. On Friday night, the Rangers seemingly did the opposite. They were predicted to be a surprise contender in the Western Conference this season, coming off a playoff upset against the heavily-favoured London Knights and boasting a near identical team to last season (from ‘Kitchener Rangers primed for a big step forward,’ The Record, 30/09/2022).
Despite the hype, the Rangers got off to a slow start and never really recovered. Just 6:49 into the first period, the Sting jumped to the early lead as forward Easton Wainwright found himself all alone off a faceoff scramble to fire it past Rangers goaltender Jackson Parsons. Adam Zidlicky tied things up for the Blueshirts two minutes later, but that would be all from the home squad for the majority of the contest.
From the tying goal, the Sting took complete control. The Rangers only managed to muster four shots on goal in the second period as the Sting potted two additional goals in the middle frame and a subsequent three in the third period. What few opportunities they managed to create were quickly snuffed out by Sting netminder Benjamin Gaudreau. Captain Francesco Pinelli attempted to energize the crowd with a Gordie Howe hat trick, unfortunately to no avail. They pulled Parsons for Marcus Vandenberg at 5-1, and the Rangers pulled two goals back in the waning minutes before the final horn sounded (from ‘A Stinging Loss: Rangers Doubled in Home Opener,’ The Record, 30/09/2022).
The Rangers looked slow, out-of-sync, and almost lazy in Friday’s performance. There was very little hustle as line changes were conducted with what seemingly amounted to a jovial nonchalance. They often failed to get back into coverage as the Sting found themselves with an inhuman amount of odd-man rushes and wide-open passing lanes. On offence, they could never find open spaces as passes hit skates, and shots were blocked before they even left a Ranger stick.
Rangers’ Play Improves Sharply, But Comes Up Short Against Attack
Saturday night’s contest in Owen Sound was a different story. From the jump, the Rangers looked the better team, opening the scoring at 7:15 of the first period on a Carson Rehkopf power-play tally, assisted by exciting new signee Hunter Brzustewicz. Just over a minute later, Kitchener native Matthew Sop doubled the lead, and everything seemed peachy. The joy was short-lived as the Attack stormed back to take a 3-2 advantage before Zidlicky equalized off a deflected Pinelli shot.
The Rangers showed remarkable effort to keep themselves in the game, but it was ultimately a heartbreaking bounce that sealed the game for the hosts. The visitors had one final chance with the goaltender pulled, but Attack keeper Nick Chenard made a cross-crease blocker save to end it. This time, they finished with 39 shots and took two of the game’s three stars.
Although they don’t play again until Oct. 7, they demonstrated both the good and the bad side of a junior team in transition. While some of the newer players have already gotten on the scoresheet and shown glimpses of their talents, the downside of that exact situation has already appeared. While they can keep up with other teams in a back-and-forth shootout, they’ve also shown that a lack of preparedness and time to gel can cause them to fall behind and turn in lacklustre performances.
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Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.