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Jordan Ercit Photo

Jordan Ercit Photo

The Kitchener Rangers had their fare share of close calls, including this glorious scoring opportunity by Justin Bailey in Game 4, but could not bury enough of those chances in a five-game Western Conference semifinal series loss to the London Knights. The Knights move on to face former Ranger Zach Lorentz and the Plymouth Whalers in the conference final.

‘Huge underachivement’

Rangers 50th anniversary season ends with five-game Western Conference semifinal loss to London

By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff

Ben Fanelli was blunt while assessing the end of the Kitchener Rangers season.

“It was a huge underachievement,” the assistant captain said four days after the Rangers were eliminated in the OHL playoffs. “With the lineup we had . . . the opportunity there for us this season was huge, it was enormous, and we came up short.”

With an anticlimactic 4-1 loss to the London Knights in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series, the Rangers 50th anniversary season ended with a thud last Friday in London.

It was less than a year ago that expectations were set high, when head coach and general manager Steve Spott said he would treat the half-centennial celebration like a Memorial Cup year in order to give potential junior graduates Ryan Murphy and John Gibson a winning sendoff.

However, Fanelli refused to bow to the notion that there was too much expected of this team too soon. The players, who Fanelli said collectively created an “unbelievable lineup,” had already placed high expectations on themselves.

“We knew how good he could have been or how good we were and I think that was where the pressure came from,” Fanelli said.

So instead of enjoying a prolonged playoff push like last season’s run to the Western Conference final, the Rangers, who finished the regular season with home-ice advantage and the seventh-best regular season record in the league, will spend the offseason asking what happened?

In the immediate aftermath, the answer from Spott was a lack of speed and scoring, something that was evident in the London series against an aggressive and opportunistic Knights team.

Despite dressing a pair of first-round NHL draft picks up front and several other professional prospects, the Rangers had trouble finishing this season and entered the post-season with fewest goals scored out of the eight playoff-bound teams in the Western Conference. They didn’t fare any better in the playoffs, scoring 2.6 goals per game compared to 3.18 in the regular season.

“I don’t want to make this about individual players, but I think if you talked to this group collectively, many of them had underachieving seasons,” Spott said, noting his biggest shortcoming in cobbling together the roster was the inability to find a No. 1 playmaking centre. “Why? I don’t know. But ultimately a lot of these guys didn’t play to the level offensively that we expected them to.”

Injuries and absences also took a toll as players like Gibson, Matt Puempel, Radek Faksa and Tobias Rieder — who broke his hand in Game 4 of the London series and didn’t dress for Game 5 — all missed significant time.

However, despite their shortcomings, the Rangers were still competitive against the Knights. They thought they had a chance to win Game 2 after a goal from Puempel was waved off by officials, pounded the Knights 6-2 in Game 3 and were leading 3-2 in the third period of Game 4 before a non-call on the Knights’ Olli Maata led to the tying goal.

Spott said he heard from the league after games 2 and 4 — when Maata interfered with Justin Bailey, who was attempting to cover game-tying goal-scorer Nikita Zadorov at the point — and “on both instances, the league took responsibility on errors that were made.”

As a result, Spott, who is a member of the OHL’s competition committee, plans this summer to discuss the need for full-time officials.

“I think our league has come so far in so many different ways, but the one area we need to continue to challenge ourselves on is in the line of officiating,” he said. “And my personal belief — this is not a Kitchener Rangers belief, this is not anyone’s belief except for Steve Spott — is that we need to go and find some full-time staff to officiate the game.”

Meanwhile, Spott is also preparing to ice a roster with little resemblance to this season’s veteran-heavy squad.

Aside from overagers Derek Schoenmakers, Domenic Alberga and Joel Vienneau, the Rangers could also be without Josh Leivo, Rieder, Murphy, Puempel, Frank Corrado, Ben Thomson, Faksa and Gibson — all of whom have been drafted by NHL teams.

That means plenty of opportunities next season for 2013 OHL draft picks Mike Davies, Doug Blaisdell and Jacob Cascagnette, or 2012 picks Ryan MacInnis (U.S. national team development program) and Jake Evans (OJHL St. Michael’s Buzzers, committed to Notre Dame for 2014) if they decide to play OHL hockey instead.

“It’s going to mean a lot of video and a lot of teaching,” said Spott, who expects to field his youngest team since the 2008-09 season, his first as the Rangers’ head coach.

Which is just fine with Fanelli, even though he hopes to fill one of the team’s three overage spots next season. The 20-year-old Wilfrid Laurier University student said he enjoyed being a leader this season and would love to reprise that roll again in 2013-14.

“I plan, 100 per cent, to come back as an over-ager,” Fanelli said. “I hope it works out, because that’s my plan. We’ll have a younger group and the guys will need even more guidance, and I’d love to play that role.”

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