By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
Thank goodness for Joel Vienneau.
Not long ago, it seemed like the overage netminder from Hearst, Ont., was the sixth spoke in a six-player wheel-and-deal between the Kitchener Rangers and Sudbury Wolves. After all, Josh Leivo and Frank Corrado were coming to The Aud as NHL draft picks while Vienneau was arriving as a backup for world junior MVP John Gibson.
Kitchener fan-favourite Frankie Palazzese, local boy Cory Genovese and 2012 first-rounder Matt Schmalz were headed the other way too.
Now, it is Vienneau starring in net as Gibson remains out indefinitely with a hip/groin injury, and the numbers are not too shabby.
Through 11 games with Kitchener, the well-travelled Guelph Storm draft pick — Vienneau has spent time with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, OJHL’s Kingston Voyageurs and NOJHL’s Abitibi Eskimos before joining Sudbury in 2011-12 — is 8-1-0-2 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average.
Go back to Nov. 30, when Vienneau was still with the Wolves, and he has only lost once in regulation.
“We didn’t expect him to play this much,” head coach and general manager Steve Spott said. “But Joel was a big part of that trade. We knew John had a history of injuries and with Frankie (Palazzese) going the other way, we knew we needed some insurance.
“Joel has given us that.”
The arrival of Vienneau and his former Wolves teammates has fuelled the Rangers’ rise in the standings. Now third in the Western Conference, Kitchener (32-15-1-6) passed Owen Sound last Sunday thanks to a 4-3 win over the top team in the OHL, the London Knights.
The host Plymouth tonight at 7:30 p.m. before visiting Erie Saturday and Guelph on Family Day Monday (2 p.m. at the Sleeman Centre.)
The goal from here on out is to hold on to a top-four spot. But catching London, 11 points up on Kitchener with 14 games remaining in the regular season, may not be possible at this point, Spott said.
“I don’t expect them to be a .500 team the rest of the way,” he said.
KITCHENER NOTES: Make it an even dozen games for Leivo and Tobias Rieder, who extended their scoring streaks Sunday in a 4-3 win over the London Knights.
Those are the longest current streaks in the league. Leivo has four goals and 13 assists, while Rieder has 14 goals and five assists. The Rangers have gone 9-2-1 in that span of 12 games with Vienneau carrying the load with a 7-1-1 record in net.
Last week, in wins over Guelph and London, plus a shootout loss to the Storm, Vienneau made an average of 38 saves too.
Meanwhile, Radek Faksa, who injured his knee in late January, will have his four-week checkup Feb. 20. The original timeframe given for his recovery was four to six weeks.
PLYMOUTH NOTES: The Whalers (29-16-5-4), the top team in the West Division, got a boost Wednesday when Swedish centre Rickard Rakell was returned to the club from the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
The first-rounder has 13 goals and 17 assists in 32 games with Plymouth this season and is also a top-end talent in the faceoff circle. He adds to an already deep forward core led by Vincent Trocheck, who is third in the OHL scoring race (40G, 42A in 48GP) and six points back of leader Nick Cousins of Sault Ste. Marie.
POST SEZ: Waterloo native Zach Lorentz will make his second appearance against his former club tonight, albeit with a second team. Lorentz, who started the season in Peterborough, was with the Spitfires on Nov. 30 when the Rangers scored a 3-2 victory at home.
Expect a motivated Whalers team tonight too.
The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds are charging hard down the stretch and are only three points back of Plymouth for the division lead — which comes with the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs since London has top spot all but locked up.
The Whalers and the Greyhounds (30-21-2-2) are both 7-2-0-1 in their last 10 games.