Nothing better to do on a Sunday? Why not take in a cross conference battle between two of the best teams in the Ontario Hockey League? That's what I did today, as I sat down in front of the boob tube to watch the Kitchener Rangers take on the Ottawa 67's. I want to get out and see the Rangers live sometime soon, but for now this will have to do.
It was a vastly entertaining game that lived up to the billing of a match up between two powerhouses. It was a back and forth battle and both teams really battled hard. The 67's got off to a quick start with a goal from Tyler Toffoli about three minutes into the game. That set the pace early and Ottawa took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. But the Rangers slowly started to take control and scored two goals in the second to tie it at 2. In the third period, Ottawa got off to a quick start again and was up 4-2 five minutes into the last frame. But this only lit a fire under the Rangers, as they completely took over the game from there on out. They scored twice to close out the period and sent the game to a shootout. The Rangers outshot the 67's 26 to 9 in the third and if it weren't for the goaltending of Petr Mrazek, Kitchener would have surely taken this one in regulation. But the game went to the shootout where Ottawa was victorious on the strength of goals from Shane Prince and Tyler Toffoli.
Neither team looked incredibly strong defensively in this one. Ottawa's defense was consistently outworked by the Rangers forwards in their own end, and had a LOT of trouble containing some of the Rangers' bigger forwards like Gabriel Landeskog and Andrew Crescenzi. While Kitchener's defense was too careless with the puck and had way too many turnovers that lead to 67 odd man rushes.
The real turning point of the game was the inability of the Kitchener powerplay to strike. Consider it the perfect storm as the league's top powerplay took on one of the league's top penalty killing units. But the Rangers powerplay looked really bad in this game. They had a particularly embarrassing 5 on 3 powerplay, where they failed to register a shot, had trouble even completing a pass, and then took a too many men on the ice penalty. Going 0 for 5 on the powerplay in a high scoring game is almost like a kiss of death and the Rangers signed their death certificate with their ineptitude with the man advantage.
Goaltending was the other thing that really separated the 67's and Rangers in the game. Petr Mrazek was largely a wall, while Mike Morrison fought the puck in the Rangers end. It's tough to lose a game when you nearly double the opposing team's shot total, and when you don't get a save in the shootout.
On to the player reports:
#16 - Tyler Toffoli (Drafted by Los Angeles in 2010)
One word. Beast. I'm not sure there is a hotter player in the CHL right now. Toffoli now has a 7 game goal scoring streak, with 11 goals in that span. That's including the two he scored this afternoon (even though I'm pretty sure one went off Shane Prince's skate). He could have easily had the hat trick, with another shot wringing off the post. I think the biggest difference in Toffoli's game this year, and even from the start of the season (when he started kind of cold) is that his conditioning has significantly improved. He's all over the ice now, on the forecheck, leading the rush with the puck and playing defensively. He has the stamina to be considerably more active without the puck and it's leading to a significant increase in scoring chances. The first goal was off a drop pass from Ryan Martindale in between the slot and the blueline. It was a rather harmless looking play until Toffoli absolutely roofed a laser of a slapshot over the glove of Morrison. The second goal was off a similar play, but his slapshot was just off the ice and it appeared to deflect off something in front of the net (I think Shane Prince's skate). He then proceeded to score in the shootout with a well placed shot just off the ice and inside the far post. He certainly picked a good time to heat up with Canada's selection camp being named in the next few weeks.
#18 - Shane Prince (Draft Eligible in 2011)
Maybe I keep watching the wrong games, but I'm still not seeing the hype he's starting to generate. He looked to be along for the ride with Toffoli and Martindale in this one. Had a lot of trouble one on one with Ottawa's defenders and had the puck taken off him quite frequently. He has speed and he's actually pretty strong along the wall where he can use his agility to keep the play alive, but in the open ice I found he struggled to get things going. He did score a very nice goal in the shootout by using a leg fake and then going left on the forehand, out waiting Morrison and roofing it.
#33 - Dalton Smith (Drafted by Columbus in 2010)
He appears to be getting back to doing the things he does best. Saw him earlier in the season and it seemed like he was trying too hard to make things happen offensively. This afternoon he was very active on the forecheck and was creating offense from turnovers. He needs to keep the game simple and up and down. He scored a goal, finishing off a 2 on 1 with Sean Monahan by sliding the puck five hole after receiving a nice cross ice pass.
#77 - Ryan Martindale (Drafted by Edmonton in 2010)
I thought he played pretty good. He definitely looks faster this year, which is helping him create more off the rush than he has in the past. The first 67's goal was a perfect example of that, as he took the puck in his own zone, cruised into the Rangers end and left a drop pass to Tyler Toffoli for the goal. He picked up a second assist in a similar fashion on Toffoli's 2nd goal. That being said, he still seems to disappear for stretches. While Toffoli was consistently active and visible (even when the 67's were struggling in the third) by way of the forecheck, Martindale was nowhere to be found. You can't ignore the offensive production he's putting up this year though and it's obvious he's taken a step forward in the right direction. I'd just like to see him become more involved without the puck.
#83 - Cody Ceci (Draft Eligible in 2012)
Perfect example as to why plus/minus is not a good stat to determine playing ability. Ceci finished the game at -3, but I thought he played a pretty good game. His agility was something that stuck out last year as a strength and this year he's using it well at both ends. He tried to make things happen offensively by rushing the puck up ice and he was also very strong one on one defensively. Saved possibly the game winning goal by Tobias Rieder in the third, by coming back hard to the defensive zone to negate a partial break down the wing. He'll need to continue to get stronger to win battles in the corner and in front of the net, but as a 2012 eligible player, he's going to have time to do that. For now, he's gaining valuable experience as, essentially, the 67's number one defenseman.
#1 - Petr Mrazek (Drafted by Detroit in 2010)
Mrazek was absolutely fantastic this afternoon. The fact that the 67's escaped with 2 points is a credit to his hard work. He was really into the game too, gave Jason Akeson a butt end in front of the net (and didn't get caught). He also tried to fight Andrew Crescenzi after he ran him over in front of the net. That feistyness comes across in his goaltending too, as he fights to make every save. For those that have never seen him play, he's definitely a hybrid style goaltender, but as I mentioned previously this season, he's really refined his approach and isn't flopping on the ground as much. He's staying up and it's allowing him to play larger in the net, especially when he plays deep in his crease (kind of the way the Canucks are trying to get Roberto Luongo to play this year). But he reads the play well and seems to know when to go down and use his athleticism. There were a couple of flurries inside the last 5 minutes where he made consecutive saves in front of the net by stretching out his pads. The other thing you notice about Mrazek is how good he is in playing the puck. He's a very confident passer and loves to stretch out defenses with the long pass. In the shootout, he wasn't tested (one lost the puck, the other shot right into his pads) and made 43 of 47 saves for the win.
#7 - Julian Melchiori (Drafted by Atlanta in 2010)
Another guy who was -3 on the day, but that I was actually impressed with. He's definitely big and he knows how to use his size. He did a good job trying up Ottawa's forwards and was physical along the boards. He had a very nice hipcheck on a 67's player as he tried to gain entry into the offensive zone. Offensively, he saw some limited time on the Rangers second powerplay unit, but was pretty quiet on the whole with the puck. But I thought he looked good defensively.
#9 - Tobias Rieder (Draft Eligible in 2011)
I guess it's time to move him up my draft board. He was fantastic today. He's not that big (listed at 5'10), but he plays a lot bigger than he is. I was actually surprised at how active he was on the forecheck, along the boards and in the crease. He actually had a couple of nice hits in puck pursuit. Offensively, he really stood out. He was very active in bringing the puck over the blueline and always looked to take it right to the net. He scored an absolutely beautiful goal in the third to bring the Rangers to within one (at the time). He got the puck and started on a 3 on 2, hit the trailer Jonathan Jasper with a pass in the slot and he ripped a shot on net. Rieder went straight to the net after giving up the puck and was rewarded with the rebound off Jasper's shot. However, it was more difficult than it sounds. Rieder had actually partially skated over the rebound, so he kicked the puck up to his stick and put it in at a near impossible angle (as he was off balance on his way behind the net). He almost scored again about two minutes later by slicing through the 67's defense and pouncing on a loose puck in the slot, but Mrazek got the pads on it. Colour me very impressed!
#15 - Ben Thomson (Draft Eligible in 2011)
Thomson appears to be at the same stage of development Crescenzi was at last year. He's big and strong and he uses that to his advantage along the boards where he works the cycle really well. But in the open ice, he's just not a strong enough skater yet to make a considerable offensive impact.
#20 - Andrew Crescenzi (Signed by Toronto as an FA)
Crescenzi had an excellent game and his increase in offensive production points to great improvement this year. He's still doing the things he did well last year, like controlling the puck in the offensive zone, but he's improved his skating which makes him a more dangerous player on the rush and in open ice. It also makes him more of a factor on the forecheck, where he can greater utilize those strong board skills by getting to loose pucks faster.
#24 - Ryan Murphy (Draft Eligible in 2011)
You either love him or you hate him, Murphy is what he is. He was kept off the scoresheet today, but he was a factor offensively all game. Once he gets across his own blueline, he's off and there's no stopping him. In the offensive zone, he takes a lot of chances and he loves to hang on to the puck to try and make things happen. His endurance must be tremendous because the guy skates circles around the defense for a whole minute, then skates back to play defense. A couple of times, he just circled around the offensive zone, looking for a teammate to get open, leaving 67's players helpless as they watched. Some people see that as hogging the puck, but he's quite patient and isn't afraid to just dump the puck into the corner if he doesn't see anything materialize. And for someone who takes as many chances offensively, he doesn't get burned very often. Only once did he get caught up ice in the game today, but it was when he tried to take the puck hard to the net. Luckily Gabriel Landeskog was there on the backcheck and the play never developed the other way. One thing he's going to have to watch out for though, is the two man forecheck. Teams are starting to send two forwards on the forecheck, trying to trap him behind the net. He almost got caught twice with that tonight. One time he got lucky, as the 67's player got the stick under his feet (after he had turned over the puck). The other time he got the pass off just before he got caught. As he moves up the levels, he'll have to start picking the spots better of when to rush and when to just pass the puck out of the zone.
#41 - Cody Sol (Drafted by Atlanta in 2009)
One of the best pickups of the OHL offseason, Sol has been a rock defensively for the Rangers this season. He hasn't quite taken his offensive game to the next level (as I thought he might), but he's been physical and dependable. He was just that today, as he used his size to protect the front of the net defensively. He also uses his long reach in the corners well, as he engages and then often is able to get the puck out. But he is definitely underrated offensively and has the puck skills to put up more points (if he were getting more powerplay time). He's actually very adept at keeping the puck in the offensive zone, as he did a couple of times today. He's got a big cannon of a shot too...although didn't get any chances to unleash it. If he can continue to improve his mobility, he could make a solid defenseman at the next level.
#92 - Gabriel Landeskog (Draft Eligible in 2011)
Don't count out the OHL from having the first overall NHL pick just quite yet. I read Bob Mackenzie say the other day that he was hearing some scouts had Landeskog in the same sentence with potential #1's RNH, Larsson and Couturier. Today was the perfect example of that. Quite frankly, he was a man amongst boys out there. I honestly can't think of a draft prospect that the OHL has had that has been more ready to play in the NHL RIGHT NOW, than Landeskog. He's such a complete player and he already has the strength and stamina to play in the NHL...and excel. While many said the likes of John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Steve Stamkos Patrick Kane, Rick Nash, etc were capable of playing offensively in the NHL in their draft years, none of them were as complete a player as Landeskog is now. He could not only be putting up numbers offensively in the NHL right now, but he'd be an asset to his team defensively and physically (something none of the others were right out of the gate, not even Nash). OK, enough ranting, about the game today. Landeskog finished with two goals and an assist, but like Toffoli, could have had the hat trick (and the game winner) if it weren't for the cross bar. First goal, he finished off a pass on a 2 on 1, but going top shelf on a sliding Petr Mrazek. It was a laser. Second goal would have had any NHL scouts in the building drooling onto the floor. He dumped the puck into the offensive zone, ran over one 67 on his way to the puck, and ran through a second. He gained possession along the wall, got it to Mike Catenacci behind the net, and then went straight to the net. From there, he finished off a pass to the front of the net, top shelf, with two 67's hanging off him (one being the 6'0, 200lbs Marc Zanetti). Let the Landeskog for number one chant begin!
#33 - Mike Morrison (Draft Eligible in 2011)
This was the first time I'd seen Morrison play (from memory) and he didn't have a good showing. He was fighting the puck and failed to make the saves needed to give his team the victory. His five hole got exposed as a big weakness in the game. First goal was a 2 on 1 that was completely stoppable. Dalton Smith got a cross ice pass and Morrison slid over to stop it, but he left way too large of a gap on the slide over and had his paddle way off the ground. Smith didn't get a hard shot off, but it got through Morrison's five hole. The 4th Ottawa goal by Cody Lindsay was five hole too, off a shot from the slot. He was giving up a lot of rebounds too, but the Rangers defense did a good job of clearing those out. In the shootout, he was made to look pretty bad by Shane Prince and Tyler Toffoli. One on a deke, the other on a shot far side. Niagara's John Chartrand and Saginaw's Tadeas Galansky are really the only draft eligible goaltenders that have impressed me this year.