There was a shocking upset in the OHL Playoffs this year. Usually, it takes until rounds two or even three for a favourite to see an “early exit”. However, this year, the #1 seed Windsor Spitfires were stunned when the #8 seed Kitchener Rangers took four straight from them and completed the sweep. Shane Wright had just two assists in these four games and one goal. The Seattle Kraken draft pick was near invisible at times in the series.
However, that is exactly what the Kitchener Rangers had in mind. From the very start of this season, it felt like this team was underperforming their true potential. Now, they may finally be realizing it at the most important time. Fresh off of a sweep of the number one team, this Rangers team made it clear they are not your ordinary eight seed.
Shane Wright and Spitfires Stunned by Kitchener Rangers
The series went the exact opposite as almost everyone expected. No one would have blinked if the Spitfires knocked off the Rangers in four straight. After all, Windsor finished first in the OHL Western Conference with 94 points in 68 games. They also went all-in at the deadline and picked up Shane Wright, as well as Rodwin Dionicio, Jacob Holmes, and Brett Harrison. They gave up a total of 20 draft picks for these four players, as well as four other players out the door. Everything felt ready for a long run in a wide-open Western Conference. Especially after picking up the big piece in Shane Wright.
However, it was not to be, as they dropped four straight to Kitchener. A Kitchener team that also lost their captain early in Game 3 due to a very dirty hit. That hit will also see him sit the first two of their next series. With team leader Francesco Pinelli out, the depth of the team really stepped up. Depth that the Rangers made sure they addressed at the deadline.
Not Your Average Season
The Kitchener Rangers sat 9th in the West as the OHL Trade Deadline approached. Yes, out of a playoff spot, despite eight of 10 teams qualifying. For almost every single team in OHL history, this would have been a sign to sell some players and re-tool for a new year. But for the Rangers, they doubled down. With Pinelli, Filip Mesar, Matthew Sop, Tomas Hamara and more, the team felt good about who they had. Adding some more is what this team needed to not only make playoffs, but elevate themselves to the top of a Conference that was there for the taking.
So, in came Danny Zhilkin, leading OHL scorer Francesco Arcuri, and Oshawa Generals captain Lleyton Moore. This is on top of the addition of goalie Marco Costantini from Kingston back in October. The Rangers paid a steep price to do this but felt confident that their squad would be better in the long run for it.
Things still didn’t go as expected after the deadline pickups. Kitchener continued to struggle, even with the depth of new additions to the team. On February 10th, they made the decision to relieve Head Coach Chris Dennis of his duties. The Rangers were 21-24-2 on the season at the time. They finished the season 33-29-6, going 12-5-4 after the change.
The coaching change looked like it may have sparked the team to finally start playing to their potential. After a 3-2-1 start, Kitchener won six in a row to catapult themselves back into the race for fifth. Heading into the final weekend they had a chance to finish anywhere from fifth to eighth. But they once again came up short, taking just one of four points on the weekend to end up in eighth place.
No Rangers fan would change a thing knowing what we know now. However, it felt like an appropriate end to an ever-frustrating regular season at the time.
The end result didn’t stop the Rangers team from becoming discouraged though. Instead, it seemed to motivate them. The team came out firing in Windsor, outplaying them and taking Game 1. In Game 2, they quickly got on the scoreboard and chased Windsor’s starter after scoring 4 goals on 19 shots. Windsor made a goalie change for Game 3, which almost paid off as Mathias Onuska made a handful of amazing stops to keep the game close.
At the end of the day, the Kitchener forecheck and the defensive play won two straight games at home to close out the series. All without their captain. That defensive play is truly what was the difference between now and the regular season. In the playoffs, Kitchener played a very responsible and tightly played system.
Any zone entry was almost immediately contested and the defence did an excellent job using their sticks to disrupt any shooting or passing lanes. When a cycle did get going, the Rangers used their body effectively to put a stop to things. This was the leading factor to keeping a star such as Shane Wright off of the scoreboard. They gave him and the rest of the Spitfire’s dynamic offence no time to think.
As things kept getting more chippy, the Rangers seemed to thrive. They played on the edge, but for the most part did not go over it. Playing physically while also making sure to keep their emotions in check when scrums broke out.
On the other side of things, it was a complete team effort. 12 different goal scorers were recorded over the 20 Rangers goals in the series. Big goals came from big players such as Mesar, Carson Rehkopf, and Arcuri. However, the depth of the roster really came into play as well.
The Rangers played an aggressive style of forecheck where two players would press the defence. Much like the defensive game, they strived on giving the Spitfires no time to react. This hard style of offence led to a lot of mistakes from the Spitfires as they tried to break the puck out. Turnovers in the attacking and neutral zone led to chances the other way.
Night and Day Effort
This type of play from Kitchener was the polar opposite of what you would see at times from them in the regular season. Instead of a tightly contested defensive effort, there were way too many times the Ranger defence would completely lose their man and let a player walk in wide open. The defensive pressure from the forwards this series saw, where they almost always had a third man back, was also non-existent. Cheating for offence led to way too many odd-man rushes back the other way during the regular season.
Additionally, the offence really depended on the Rangers top lines. If the main few forwards weren’t scoring, the team was going to struggle to find offence at times. This was again a huge change as all four lines looked poised and dangerous. Which really shined through in both of their home games.
The Kitchener Rangers now have a date with their rivals the London Knights in Round 2. Once again, most will likely have London as the favourites to take the series. However, Kitchener will be looking to show this round win was no fluke. Missing their captain for two games will make things much more difficult.
For Windsor, this has to feel like an opportunity lost. Going all-in like they did at the deadline only to lose every playoff game is a brutal outcome, no matter how you slice it. Now? They will need to figure out where they are going forward. It seems unlikely they will be this good again next year, as they will naturally lose some pieces.
One of those pieces will be Shane Wright. A very disappointing end to his Junior career. Especially considering the narratives of “He is too good for the CHL” that swarmed him over the past year or so. Wright finishes the season with 37 points in 20 games, and an additional three in four playoff games. No doubt his goal will be to stick with the Kraken next year. Wright has had an interesting career already to say the least. But at the end of the day, it just wasn’t enough to beat a Kitchener Rangers team who designed themselves for this moment.
Main Photo – Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports