This is the time of the year when hockey starts to get to be a lot of fun to cover as every game becomes that much more important. Teams are jockeying for playoff position so it is our chance to see how the prospects handle the pressure of a playoff race.
Our experience teaches us that the Ranger prospects who move on towards a professional career are the ones who elevate their games during this time of the year. There is a reason why Dubinsky, Staal, Callahan, Del Zotto and Girardi have made their way to the Rangers and mostly it is because they played well during their league playoffs.
Tonight's First Star Tomas Kundratek
It has been a mostly quiet season for Tomas Kundratek (2008 3rd) but lately we have seen a elevation of his play as his Medicine Hat Tigers fight for playoff positioning in the WHL's Eastern Conference. As Kundratek has played better so has his Tiger team as they have been fighting the Calgary Hitmen for first place in the WHL's Central Division.
On Saturday evening as Kundratek's Tiger's hosted the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Tigers were trying to keep pace with the Calgary Hitmen while also trying to hold off the red hot Kootenay Ice. Kundratek did his job as he had 2 assists (including one shorthanded) as the Tigers whipped the Oil Kings 9-2.
Kundratek was also a +3 as he was named the game's 3rd star. Kundratek improved to 2-24-26 +5 on the season.
Second Star Scott Stajcer Scott Stajcer (2009 5th) must love to take a beating as we see him play his best when he faces the most shots. Against the Sarnia Sting, the young goalie for the Owen Sound Attack stopped 40 of the 41 shots he faced to lead the Attack to a 7-1 win.
Only a late goal in the second period kept Stajcer from a shutout as he faced 14 shots in the first period, 17 in the second and 10 more in the 3rd period. It was a very nice performance to see from Stajcer as he won his 2nd straight start after going winless in 4 previous starts.
We know young goalies have their ups and downs but it is very hard for us to not think of the possibilities with Stajcer. Nothing against the other goalies in the Ranger system but not even Henrik Lundqvist was facing the kinds of players that Stajcer has since he was 17.
Stacjer in the last 2 seasons has faced 11 NHL first round picks and that is with a defense that at times can be described as shaky at best. We love how he reminds us of Mike Richter who got better the more shots he faced in a game.
Stajcer is 17-15-3-1 overall but his record when facing 30 or more shot is 11-5-2-1 and remember he is just 18. Stajcer is going to get even better overtime and we can not wait until he gets to work with Benoit Allaire the Ranger's goaltending coach.
Stajcer's win streak has helped the Owen Sound Attack jump from 8th to 6th in the OHL's Eastern Conference.
Third Star Derek Stepan
By now Ranger fans should be used to Derek Stepan (2008 2nd) elevating his game in the 3rd period to make the big play. You can not teach a player to become a clutch performer but Stepan has to be the very best among the Ranger prospects.
Stepan and his 3rd ranked Wisconsin Badgers were playing the top ranked Denver Pioneers in a key WCHA matchup that could go a long way towards seeding in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Last season what cost the Badgers was their failure to defeat the Pioneers even once as if they had then they would have earned an NCAA bid.
On Friday the Badgers had to settle for a 3-3 overtime tie which made Saturday's matchup even more important for the Badgers. The Badgers had blown a 3-1 lead in the 3rd period and with 6:30 remaining in the 3rd period Stepan got the puck back to the point where Justin Schultz fired a shot towards the Denver goal which Michael Davies deflected into the net for what proved to be the winning goal.
It was Stepan's 23rd assist on the season as he is now 6-23-29 and if you add his Team USA numbers is a not bad 10-33-43 which is better than many of the Ranger prospects playing in the Canadian juniors.
Rest of the Ranger Prospects
Ryan McDonagh (2009 Trade) also had a key assist against Denver as the future Ranger defenseman had an assist on Wisconsin's first goal of the game. The assist was McDonagh's 9th assist on the season and 12th point of the season.
With the win the Badgers now have the exact same record as the Pioneers at 14-6-4.
Daniel Maggio (2009 6th) did not score but was a +2 as his Sudbury Wolves earned a hard fought 3-2 win over the Brampton Battalion. With the win, the Wolves moved to within 1 point of Ethan Werek's Kingston Frontenacs for 5th place in the OHL's Western Conference and 4 point of 4th place Peterborough.
Mitch Gaulton (2008 6th) had a scoreless night and took 2 penalties as his Erie Otter blew a 3-1 lead and fell to the Kitchener Rangers 6-4. The Otters playing a 3 game in 3 nights road trip find themselves falling to 7th in the OHL's Eastern Conference.
Carl Hagelin (2007 6th) and his Michigan Wolverines dropped the 2nd game of their 2 game series with the 9th ranked Ferris State Warriors when the Warriors scored the game winner with just 24 seconds remaining in regulation. Ferris State held off the Wolverines 3-2 as Hagelin was held scoreless.
Sam Klassen (2009 UFA) had a rare -3 game as his Saskatoon Blades dropped a 5-2 decision to the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Wheat Kings with the win pulled to within 2 points of the Blades for the best record in the WHL's Eastern Conference.
Roman Horak (2009 5th) was held scoreless but helped played his solid game on the penalty kill as his Chilliwack Bruins defeated the Kamloops Blazers 4-1 to earn a split of their home and home series along with passing the Blazers for 6th in the WHL's Western Conference. Horak and the Bruin penalty kill was perfect stopping all 6 Blazer power plays.
Chris Kreider's (2009 1st) 10th ranked Boston College Eagles wound up with a lost weekend as they dropped 3-1 decision to the UMass Lowell Red Hawks. Kreider was scoreless as the Eagles fell into a 2nd place tie with the UMass Minutemen in the Hockey East conference.
Danny Hobbs (2007 7th) and his 15th ranked UMass Minutemen took advantage of Boston College's loss by helping themselves with a 3-1 win over Vermont in Hockey East action. Hobbs was scoreless but as we mentioned the Minutemen moved into a 2nd place tie with Boston College.
Hobbs and UMass will have a chance to take 2nd place for themselves if they can defeat Vermont on Sunday. The game will be televised nationally on ESPNU starting at 3PM EDT/12 PM PDT so set your DVRs since we know everyone will be watching the Jets.
Luke Walker (Traverse City) scored his 19th goal of the season unassisted as his Portland Winterhawks whipped on the Seattle Thunderbirds 6-1. Walker and company jumped back into 4th place in the WHL's Western Conference ahead of the Spokane Chiefs.
Max Campbell (2007 5th) and his Western Michigan Broncos continued to struggle as they lost to Bowling Green 3-2. Campbell was scoreless as the Broncos fell to 6-13-5 after being held to just 17 shots by a 4-18-4 team.
(Pictures courtesy of : Kundratek/ Medicine Hat, Stajcer: Owen Sound, Stepan/ Melody Hasse)
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