For the fourth time in five seasons, the London Knights will face off with the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL playoffs. Starting Friday night, the two rivals will begin a Western Conference semi-final series that will carry a little more intrigue for the fans in Leafs Nation.
There are a few reasons to be excited a second-round matchup that features two bitter rivals, but the biggest for fans in Toronto is likely that both teams come series being led by Maple Leafs prospects. Jeremy Bracco and Mitch Marner each lead their respective teams in point production through the first round and the two star wingers will look to put on a show while we watch the Leafs stumble into the end of the NHL season.
After being eliminated from the playoffs by London last season, the Kitchener Rangers likely come into the second round series with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. After leading the Western conference for the first half of the season, the Rangers went on a bit of a slide after Christmas, falling to third in the division. Luckily for them, they appear to have things back on track as their series win against Windsor was likely the most impressive performance of the first round. Leafs fans will be happy to see Jeremy Bracco’s name leading the way on the Rangers stat sheet. He’s looked great through his first five OHL playoff games.
The Rangers are a team built around their offense. The trio of Bracco, Ryan MacInnis (Arizona second round pick) and Adam Mascarin (2016 draft eligible) have been the catalyst for the team all season and that has continued through the playoffs. As is often the case in the CHL playoffs, the Rangers have been getting surprising production from undrafted 20-year-old Brandon Robinson. The winger leads the team with six goals through his first five games of the playoffs and will have to continue to provide a secondary scoring option for the Rangers to remain competitive in the series.
The big question for Kitchener in the second round will be the goaltending. After starting only 22 games in the regular season, Dawson Carty has been tasked with carrying the load between the pipes. The Rangers are used to outlasting their opponents in a scoring race, but that is a bad idea against the most potent offense in OHL. For Kitchener to have a chance in the series, Carty is going to have to have the performance of his life.
Mitch Marner, Mitch Marner, Mitch Marner. We all know what the story is with the London Knights. Leafs Nation is focused squarely on #93 in green. Marner has been as great as we would hope. He leads London with 12 points (10 primary) through the team’s first round win over Owen Sound. Like Kitchener, the Knights rely on a big three consisting of a Leafs prospect, a Coyotes prospect and an expected 2016 first round pick. Marner, Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk have been the most dynamic line in the CHL all season. Every shift they are on the ice is white-knuckle time for the opposition, and this round won’t be any different. With Dvorak’s versatility and pro-style game, Marner’s creativity and Tkachuk’s ability to finish, the line is exciting to watch and the reason London scored far more goals than any other team in the OHL this season.
The x-factor for the Knights will likely be Cliff Pu, who has had a breakout over the past few months that has seen his draft stock skyrocket. Pu has five goals in six games and is making the opposition pay for focusing all their time and energy on the top line. Between Pu and Aaron Berisha, the Knights have a group of secondary scorers that are second to none.
Aside from the competence of Tyler Parsons in net, the big question is how the Knights will do without Max Jones. Jones is a key part of the team but will miss the entire series after being suspended 12 games for a vicious head hit on Owen Sound’s Justin Brack.
Oh, they also have 2017 Marlie/Solar Bear JJ Piccinich.
These two teams know each other well, having met six times in the regular season, so there should be no surprises on either side. London won the season series 4-2 and will look to eliminate the Rangers from the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five years. London was the best team in the CHL for the last two months of the season but Kitchener was far more impressive in the first round against a harder opponent. If nothing else, this series will be fun to watch as both teams are built around offense. There will be a lot of pretty goals scored and there is a great chance the two Leafs prospects will factor into most of them. The Leafs season ends this weekend so if you get the itch for hockey and can find it, I highly suggest taking the time to watch at least a game of this series.