By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
The Kitchener Rangers turn the page tonight on a generous January.
In the span of a month, a team once riddled with injuries and decimated by world junior team absences after the Christmas break has risen from fourth in the division to within a two-point sniff of the second-place Owen Sound Attack, who visit The Aud this evening at 7:30 p.m.
Fuelling that surge up the standings were the returns of Matt Puempel, Tobias Rieder, Ryan Murphy and the acquisition of four players at the OHL’s trade deadline. The result, despite recent injuries to centre Radek Faksa and goalie John Gibson: A 10-2-1 month, including an 8-1-1 surge since the Rangers made a pair of swaps Jan. 8 with the Sudbury Wolves and Peterborough Petes.
“Once you have healthy scratches, that creates competition for jobs,” head coach and general manager Steve Spott said. “That’s where you want to be as a coach; you want guys every night recognizing that they’re going to have to work, compete and battle hard to keep their job.
“That’s what this league is all about and that’s what this level is all about.”
The pressure to stay in the lineup has worked well in motivating some of the kids, in particular 1995 birthyear forwards Brent Pedersen, Josh Sterk and Josh Bailey.
All three have had their best month in a Rangers uniform. Bailey, No. 2 on the team with a plus-17 rating, had five goals and five assists. Sterk posted similar numbers with four goals and six assists.
Pedersen has been even better of late too, with six goals and five assists in his last 10 games.
“When we have a full team and a full lineup, I think the whole team, everyone in the room, is pretty calm,” Sterk said. “I think we’re all clicking and the team’s really tight right now.”
Part of Sterk’s surge, and possibly Pedersen’s too, also has to do with confidence.
With more than a year of OHL experience now, the 18-year-old Georgetown native said he feels more relaxed. That wasn’t always the case last season, when it seemed like his every move was scrutinized and he was afraid to make mistakes.
There was also the pressure of trying to claim the team’s No. 2 centre spot in training camp last fall.
“It was nerve-wracking after being a rookie last year,” he said. “But I think now everyone has their own role and having great chemistry with Pedersen and Bailey helps.”
Now it’s a matter of keeping the embers on their suddenly hot offence stoked. After averaging about two goals per game in the first half of the season, the Rangers have been pouring in about twice that in January — 3.92 goals per game to be exact.
The timing couldn’t be any better.
The Rangers are in the midst of eight straight divisional games and have just two out-of-conference matchups left until the end of the regular season. With 10 points separating third place from seventh in the Western Conference, soaking up every possible point is a must.
“It’s extremely tight and we know each game going down the stretch will have a lot of emotion,” Spott said. “It’s going to be great for the fans.”
KITCHENER NOTES: It is not all good news right now for the Rangers (29-14-1-5).
Last week the team said Faksa would miss four to six weeks with an MCL injury. No surgery is needed, so the Dallas Stars prospect should return in time for the playoffs.
Meanwhile Gibson, the team’s No. 1 netminder, remains out indefinitely with a hip flexor injury.
The recent surge also has the Rangers back on the radar as a potential top-10 team in the CHL. They were given honourable mention in the most recent poll compiled from NHL scouts, while London (No. 3), Barrie (No. 8 ) and Owen Sound (No. 10) were ranked.
OWEN SOUND NOTES: Big moves at the deadline have also provided the Attack (30-14-1-3) with a payoff in the standings.
After losing five straight games to start 2013, GM Dale DeGray traded for standout offensive defenceman Cody Ceci, forward Steven Janes, added former University of Michigan recruit Daniel Milne and welcomed back import forward Artur Gavrus from his native Belarus.
They have gone 6-2-0 since, including a 4-1 win Wednesday over the ranked Barrie Colts.
Meanwhile, Jarrod Maidens, a third-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, is working out with the Attack for the first time in more than a year — although Maidens, who took an accidental knee to the head on Nov. 30, 2011 and suffered from post-concussion syndrome, is not expected to suit up anytime soon.