Friday, May 16, 2008

These Rangers Just Might Win the Cup (Memorial that is)

While fans of the New York Rangers are rather busy filling the message board over what moves to make, not make, which free agents to sign or avoid there is a team with the name Rangers that has a very good chance at winning the Memorial Cup.

Without offending our friends at the IIHF, the Memorial Cup is a great warmup for the NHL Stanley Cup finals. If you have never had a chance to follow how the Memorial Cup works then we really urge you to check it out.

The Memorial Cup is the Canadian Hockey League's championship as it decides which team from the 3 Canadian Junior teams is it's very best. The Cup has been contested for since 1919 and the format alone is what actually makes it so attractive a competition.

The format is like this: 4 teams that consist of the 3 champions of the Western, Ontario and the Quebec Major along with a second team from the same league as the host city take part. In the case of this year's competition, the OHL Champion Kitchener Rangers are the hosts for this event so the OHL runner up the Belleville Bulls are playing as a wild card team.

From the WHL, the Spokane Chiefs and from the QMJHL, the Gatineau Olympiques round out the field. Each team will get to face each other in the round robin portion of the event. The team that has the best in the round robin will earn the right to play in the championship game a week from Sunday.

The other teams will fight to see who gets to be the second team on the finals but at times how on gets there is half the fun. If there is a clear 2nd and 3rd place team out of the round robin then those 2 teams will meet in a semi-final a week from Friday.

However if any of the 3 remaining teams are tied then the 2 lowest seeded teams will first play a tiebreaker game next Thursday in order to decide who moves into the semi-final game. In other words it is just as possible for the 4th seed to come all the way back and win the Memorial Cup just by getting hot at the perfect time.

A bit confusing yes but in many ways it is more exciting than a Stanley Cup final because one never knows what really will happen. With the games being televised on the NHL Network in the United States then US fans are going to get a good look at some very outstanding young prospects.

The question is who is going to win, the easy answer is the host team the Kitchener Rangers. After all how could any Ranger fan not root for this team given the name it proudly wears. The K-Rangers have been at the top of the CHL polls for most of this past season.

What stands out for these K-Rangers is all the feel good stories about the players of this team. One has to start with the player who was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the OHL in Justin Azevedo.

If there ever was a Ugly Duckling of hockey then Azevedo fits that description to a tee. An overage player who has never been drafted by an NHL team, this is a player who has so many supposed negatives that one has to wonder how exactly Azevedo went 43-81-124 during the OHL regular season.

Azevedo is only 5'8 and the supposed experts list all these as his negatives: he's short, people wonder if he is more fat than muscle, he is not good at face-offs, has so-so skating speed and can not handle the physical game. Of course those same folks can not explain how he scored 124 points.

We think a better version of Theo Fleury (meaning without the extra baggage) who someone is going to give a shot at the NHL level. Ah but the K-Rangers have another "feel good" story and that is in goal with Josh Unice.

Unice a Blackhawk draft pick choose the K-Rangers over the NCAAs and started the season as the starting goalie. The K-Rangers at mid-season traded for Steve Mason who was Canada's goalie at the WJC and lost his starting job until Mason tore a knee ligament during the second round of the OHL playoffs.

Since then Unice has won 2 playoff round and has caused a goalie controversy now that Mason is almost ready to return to action. We root for the US born Unice on this one.

But the K-Rangers are loaded from top to bottom with scoring and depth on all of their lines along with having perhaps the best defensive units in the Cup competition. Guess everyone should just hand the trophy to them right?

Wrong, as the other 3 teams have their own reasons to think they can win the Cup too and we will start with the Belleville Bulls who lost a tough Game 7 in the OHL finals to the K-Rangers. The Bulls are just like their name stubborn as they came back from down 0-3 to force a game 7 to the K-Rangers before falling and it was a true classic of a comeback.

The Bulls are led by perhaps the most entertainer player in all of hockey even more so than Sean Avery in defenseman P.K. Subban. We met Subban at last year's draft as he totally stole the show with the media after the Canadian's took him in the 2nd round.

Off the ice Subban is a comedian leaving everyone laughing with his antics, on the ice Subban is leading all OHL defenders in playoff scoring going 8-15-23. He is going to make life miserable for the New York Rangers in the future at both ends of the ice.

The Bulls also have Mike Murphy who was the OHL's Goalie of the Year while being living proof that looks are deceiving. 5'11 at best, Murphy is 50-10 for both the regular season and playoffs and had the kind of break out season that makes people realize just how much drafting and scouting is a crap shoot.

The Bulls also have Shawn Matthaias who started the season with the Florida Panthers and is someone suspect having missed all but one game in the playoffs due to mono. If he is healthy he could be the difference maker in beating the K-Rangers.

Number 3 on our list is the Gatineau Olympiques as they have been red hot winners of 12 of the last 14 games. The Olympiques stomped on Halifax and then whipped a previously unbeaten Rouyn-Noranda to get to the Cup.

Led by another future Ranger nightmare Flyer 2006 first round pick Claude Giroux who only has 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in just 19 playoff games. No that is not a typo that is a QMJHL playoff record for even that offense happy league.

So far nobody has been able to stop Giroux or his teammates Paul Byron (32 points), Matthew Pistilli (28 points) and Patrik Prokop (28 points). If they keep playing like they have during the QMJHL playoffs then nobody is going to stop them in the Cup.

The K-Rangers get to open the Memorial Cup against this offense on Friday and we wish them a lot of luck. They will need every bit of it.

The last team and our dark horse/sentimental favorite is the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. While the Gatineau Olympiques are the offensive machine of the Memorial Cup then the Chiefs are the defensive stoppers.

The Chiefs despite not having any super prospect scorers on their roster win with a strong team effort that starts with a player that if the Rangers we would take in the middle rounds in goalie Dustin Tokarski. In our book Tokarski is actually the best goalie in the Memorial Cup and we totally disagree with the CSB ranking of him as the 9th best North American goalie.

This is a future NHL starter for someone as this playoff season has been Tokarski's coming out party with a 16-2-3 record with a 1.38 GAA. The Chiefs need him to continue to stand on his head as their best scorer is
Mitch Wahl who is the 64th ranked player (3rd rounder) in this season's CSB.

The Chiefs have on their resume eliminating the defending Memorial Cup Champions the Vancouver Giants and the WHL regular season champs the Tri-City Americans. IF Tokarski remains hot then this has to be the dark horse team that nobody wants to face.

As for us, while it is hard to go against the K-Rangers, we watched what Gatineau did to Halifax in the QMJHL and it was a textbook butt kicking. However a little voice keeps saying Go Chiefs because our own ties to the WHL.

We see the Cup as breaking down like this:

Kitchener defeats Gatineau

Spokane upsets Belleville

Kitchener defeats Spokane

Gatineau defeats Belleville

Gatineau defeats Spokane

Belleville defeats Kitchner

Gatineau earns the first final spot by virtual of goal differential

Spokane defeats Belleville in the wild card game

Kitchener defeats Spokane in the semi-final

Gatineau defeats Kitchener for the Memorial Cup

Of course we reserve the right to be wrong since this is one of those events that is decided on the ice not on our site.

Game 1 7 PM/4 PM on the NHL Network BE THERE

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