Happy Thanksgiving everyone (well at least my Canadian readers). Nothing makes a Canadian Thanksgiving complete (besides food), like some good ol' hockey and today saw the match up of two of the best teams in the Western Conference as the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds took on the Kitchener Rangers at the Aud. The Hounds came into the game riding a 2 game losing streak, while the Rangers had yet to suffer a regulation loss.
When the dust settled, the Hounds ended up on the wrong side of a 4-2 score and extended their losing streak to 3 games after starting the year with 7 straight wins. I don't think Hounds fans should be discouraged. Tough games, and ones the Hounds stayed competitive in. I don't see this as the end of the Hounds Cinderella story or anything. They are a solid team and they'll get back to winning once the shock of their first losses wears off.
As for the Rangers, they look really strong. They aren't getting as much respect as they should right now, in my opinion. I think most of it stems from the fact that they haven't played as many games as some of the other teams in the league. They have by far the best winning percentage in the league thus far, but are only tied for third in points. If they don't make the CHL Top 10 rankings this week, it'll be a travesty. They look solid at both ends of the ice, rolling two really strong scoring lines and playing solid defense. They finally got some good goaltending from Brandon Maxwell today too, after he struggled in his opening three games.
Most importantly, this game represented the reality of the OHL. In 2008, these two teams met in the Western Conference finals. In 2009, they both missed the playoffs. In 2010, they are forces to be reckoned with again. Look no further than the Eastern Conference this year. In 2009, Belleville and Brampton met in the East finals. In 2010, they are tied for last in the East. It's a whirlwind league, whose natural design sees this up and down competitive nature. It also shows that in the OHL, rebuilds or "retools" should not take longer than a season to accomplish. Teams like the Kingston Frontenacs, and Peterborough Petes should not have been making excuses the past few years for on ice performance in the face of rebuilds, as teams continue to show that the rebuilding process can be successful in only a years time. That being said, it is worth mentioning that Kingston and Peterborough are finally back to the top of the East after three year absences (ironically the last time these BOTH teams finished with home ice advantage in round one was 2005-06).
Anyway back to the game at hand and my impressions on the Rangers and Hounds...
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Brandon Archibald (2010)
Played a quietly effective game. Big defenseman with good mobility who plays a very quietly effective defensive game. Keeps players to the outside, makes smart decisions with the puck. He also works on the second powerplay unit and does a good job moving the puck around the ice. Guys like him always generate attention from NHL scouts. I look at him and see a guy like Brampton's Matt Clark, who ended up being a high 2nd round pick in 2009.
Jacob Muzzin (Overage Free Agent)
After failing to sign with Pittsburgh, Muzzin is back in the OHL for his overage season. I'm a big fan of his as a player and I think Pittsburgh made a mistake in not signing him (although admittedly they do have several similar prospects like Robert Bortuzzo and Ben Lovejoy). The Hounds have to be happy to have him back as he's serving as their captain and leading their defense in scoring. He's a big guy who loves to use his size. He laid out Jeff Skinner twice as he tried to bring the puck to the net. He also is smart with the puck and moves up it up very well. His skating isn't the greatest and it needs to be improved for the professional level, but he has all the other tools that you'd look for in a rugged NHL defenseman. I hope someone gives him a contract this offseason. He finished the game with 2 assists.
Daniel Catenacci (2011)
The first overall pick in the 2009 OHL Priority Draft, Catenacci showed some good things today. I like his composure with the puck in the offensive zone. With rookies, you find that they try to force things or try to make moves with the puck in traffic and end up turning it over. Catenacci played the simple possession game in the offensive end, he worked the cycle and he didn't turn the puck over. While he never really generated any offensive chances, I was impressed with the maturity of his game. As he gets stronger and gains more confidence, he's likely to start contributing more.
James Livingston (STL)
Livingston was one guy whom I felt really needed to step up his game this year and thus far he has. He's definitely a power forward who looks to drive to the net with the puck on his stick. But he's actually a fairly skilled puck handler who's able to get through defenders not only with his size, but his skill too. With great hands, it's always been a wonder to me as to how he's never put up better stats in this league. One thing I will say though is that his skating has never really improved in the league. Only an average skater, I thought that Livingston could make gains on his speed and acceleration in the same way a guy like James Neal did in his time in the league. But he still looks like he's skating in molasses at times. That explosive skating ability is about the only thing lacking in his game, and probably the thing that prevents him from really taking over shifts. He finished with a goal and an assist, both on somewhat goal mouth scrambles.
Kyle DeCoste (TBL)
After playing so well for the Hounds late last year, I expected him to make a much larger contribution this year. Thus far, he's been largely disappointing. With only 1 goal in 7 games, he's on pace to take a step backwards offensively. Truthfully, he was largely invisible today. If he's not contributing on offense, DeCoste usually at least contributes physically. But he didn't do a whole lot of that today either. Seems to be just going through the motions.
Brock Beukeboom (2010)
Beukeboom was alright today. I liked his willingness to play the body and he made sure the Rangers forwards knew he was there. I liked the way he controlled the point on the powerplay, using his big shot to create scoring chances. He does a good job of getting it through to the net too. Outside of that, not much else to say really. He wasn't terrible, and he wasn't great.
Nick Cousins (2011)
Invisible tonight. If I wasn't looking for him on a shift, I had a pretty hard time finding him. That being said, I saw a little bit of him earlier this season and in the preseason and he was at times then, one of the best players on the ice. Simply the trials and tribulations of being an OHL rookie.
Robin Lehner (OTT)
A lot of promising things here. A big goaltender who's definitely a pure butterfly goaltender. Does an outstanding job of taking away the bottom of the net. Completely robbed the Rangers twice by stretching out in the splits and getting his pad on the shot. I really liked the way he controlled his rebounds too. For a big netminder, this can often be a problem as they've got a lot more body to cover up. On the negative side, he's very timid in net for a big goaltender. Seems very content in playing back in his net and it was obvious the Rangers were trying to go upstairs on him. The first Rangers goal scored by Jeremy Morin was a weak one, where he failed to challenge the shooter and Morin had enough space to get it under his arm. He'd really be a lot more effective if he used his size to take away the top of the net too, by being aggressive and challenging shooters. He made 35 of 38 saves and took the loss.
John Moore (CBJ)
My first look at Moore and I was impressed...although admittedly not as "wowed" as I expected myself to be. Perhaps it was all the hype that got me thinking he was going to dominate. The skating ability was definitely as advertised. Very smooth skater who carries the puck up ice with ease. That being said, I'd like to see him use that ability to generate more scoring chances. Maybe it's a confidence thing or a feeling out process, but for the majority his rushes ended with him just dumping the puck into the zone. Defensively, he uses his skating ability to really stay with forwards and plays a solid positional game. He did make an error in coverage on the first Greyhounds goal though, failing to tie up his man (Livingston) as he put home the cross crease pass. Played a solid game, but I did expect a little more. But as I mentioned, it could have been due to unfair expectations.
Dan Kelly (Overage Free Agent)
I'm not sure if he has a future at the next level, but I really like Kelly. Without question one of the best defensive defenseman in the OHL, Kelly is a rock in his own end. The Hounds were unable to get by him all day. I really like the added aggression and toughness he showed too. Previously, I always found him to be more of a positional defender, but he was banging bodies tonight. If he wants a future at the next level, he's going to have to continue to do this. Offensively, he plays a safe game like many stay at home guys. Moves the puck up ice, doesn't force anything. He knows his limitations. Like Jacob Muzzin, I'm rooting for him to get an NHL deal, even if it would appear to be a bit of a long shot.
Tyler Randell (BOS)
Was alright today. Works the cycle well, goes to the net hard. He missed a couple good opportunities to score that he's got to do a better job getting his stick on the puck. Skating still is a bit of an issue, especially his acceleration. I'd also like to see him play more aggressive away from the puck. He has the size to bang bodies and I've seen him do it before, but it's an inconsistent quality. If he has a future at the NHL level, it's as a gritty scoring winger, and that means he's going to need to find a way to increase his energy and aggression levels on the ice.
Jason Akeson (2010, but 1990 born)
Akeson is another guy I really like as a player. I was kind of disappointed no one took a chance on him at the 2009 NHL Draft, but he's had an explosive start to the season. I think he's a really smart player and the majority of his success comes from his elite hockey sense. As a result of being smart with the puck, he is an excellent playmaker who does a good job at finding his teammates in strong scoring positions. He made be a tad undersized (5'10ish), but he competes and isn't afraid of the danger areas. Nice to see Akeson and his former teammate Eric O'Dell in the top 10 of OHL scoring. Both were hesitant to join the OHL over the NCAA route and leave their Cumberland CJHL team in 2008. But it's worked out well for both of them thus far I would say. Akeson finished with an assist.
Ryan Murphy (2011)
I came to the game expecting John Moore to be the dynamic playmaker, but instead it was Murphy who wowed me with his skating and puck carrying ability. Had two absolutely beautiful rushes with the puck where he exploded up ice and into the offensive zone. He took the puck right towards the net too and showed no fear or hesitation in doing so. Really seems to have elite puck skills. Defensively he wasn't noticeably poor either. He needs to add size in order to be able to consistently eliminate opposing forwards, but he plays a solid positional game and uses his skating ability to his advantage. I hope he can grow a little bit, but he has the makings of a dynamic offensive defenseman in this league. He finished the game with an assist.
Jeff Skinner (2010)
Skinner had a bit of a tough game. Had some good opportunities to beat Lehner but was stopped by the big netminder. He also got drilled a few times by Muzzin, and generally had a tough time getting to the net through the Hounds big defenseman. But you can't fault him for not trying. Skinner's always got his motor running and is active on the forecheck and generated some turnovers. I think he'd make a lot better winger than he would a center, as he's playing right now. I find that sometimes he tries to be too cutesy with the puck, kind of the Nazem Kadri syndrome. Instead of making the simple play, he tries to dangle or make the more difficult one. If he could play the wing and use his speed and no quit attitude to go up and down the ice, I think he'd be a lot more consistent at the offensive end.
Jeremy Morin (ATL)
Two goals in his first five games. Seven goals in his last two games. Four of those came tonight. He's definitely got a nose for the net, which was advertised to be his forte. He's not the best skater, but he's very elusive on the ice and seems to be one of those guys who can get himself open. Like any good scorer, he loves to cut to the middle of the ice with the puck on his stick too, which is how he scored his first goal. Came from behind the net, cut to the middle and put it high on Lehner (although it was a weak goal). Other two goals were of the garbage variety, while the 4th was an empty net effort where he stripped Vern Cooper of the puck and had the easy put away. Was very impressed by Morin tonight.
Gabriel Landeskog (2011)
I liked what I saw from Landeskog today. He's got a lot of energy. He skates hard, asserts himself physically. Seems to have good hands in close to the net. Morin mopped up some of his garbage after he made a nice play to get the puck on net. I think as the year goes on, he'll start getting better and better. He finished with an assist.
Brandon Maxwell (COL)
Maxwell was pretty solid today. He's got kind of an unorthodox style and flops around a little bit. That early commitment to the ice could be what's gotten him in trouble early in the season. But he did a very good job of taking away the bottom of the net tonight and seems to have very good reaction time in the crease. Made a few really nice saves by sliding cross crease and showed good lateral mobility. Hopefully he can string some good performances together and show the Rangers they made a good decision by bringing him into the fold. He made 29 of 31 saves for the victory.
That's it for the game. Anyone else catch the game today or have general comments about the Hounds and/or Rangers?