By Jake Howorth
Well, we’re finally here.
The games, road trips, injuries, the historic regular season is all in the distant of the review mirror. None of it matters when the intensity, pressure and adrenaline intensifies with the playoffs starting tonight. The North York Rangers first-round matchup is with a familiar opponent in the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
The pair of teams had a chance to get ahead of the curve of building a hatred for one another. They battled twice in the final two weeks of the season. Trust me, the animosity grew from the first game to the second one. The final meeting saw the Rangers go into double overtime for the second time in the season series, and once again came out with a 5-4 win.
North York came out victories in four of the five meeting against Buffalo this season. Every single game was a tightly defensive affair all of which decided by three or fewer goals. The first contest and only time the Jr. Sabres won was the key turning point to the Rangers season. For the second straight game at the time, they fell 3-0 and heavily outplayed. In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the coaching staff had a meeting with the team afterwards for over 30 minutes. Since that moment, North York record stood at 26-5-1-3 the rest of the way.
The staple points for the insane turn around can be related to the classic hockey cliché, ‘it’s easier to stop a goal than to score one.’ It starts with goaltending, a factor the Rangers have two options to go too. Colby Muise, who won the OJHL goalie of the month twice, led the league in goals-against average (1.81) and save percentage (.934%). Fellow netminder Jett Alexander is right behind him sitting fifth in GAA (2.09) and the holds the third best save percentage (.928).
Thanks to that, the Rangers allowed the fewest amount of goals per game at 2.04. Of course, a goalie can’t find success without the defence in front of him. The men on the blue line are very physical, keeps things simple on their end and aren’t afraid of putting themselves in harm’s way. They only allow 28.89 shots per game, the second least in the league. Head coach Geoff Schomogyi has confidence in all his defensemen no matter the situation.
In order for the Rangers to transfer their success from the season into the playoffs, they need to keep their foot on the gas no matter what. North York is guilty of not playing a consistent 60 minutes and some examples were spotted in contests with Buffalo. In a pair of games, in which the Rangers seem to be in control, they allowed the opponents to regain momentum and almost come out with victories.
Another aspect that must happen, is the Rangers being able to convert on offensive opportunities. Too many times this season they generated chances but failed to finish. This gives opposing teams life.
The line of Noah Jordan, Grayden Gottschalk and Jesse Tucker has been the catalyst offensively since being thrown together in the ladder part of the campaign.
Jordan recorded 14 points in the final 11 contests only being held off the scoresheet twice in that span. The former St. Michaels Buzzer put up six goals for seven points against Buffalo this campaign. The rookie Tucker registered a team-high 33 assists and 50 points while Gottschalk brought size, effort and goal scoring abilities. The Rangers do rely on depth scoring with six players registering 16 goals or more.
On the other hand, Buffalo plays a similar style to North York. They rely on their goaltending of Brian George and use a defensive trap to create offence in transition. Recently though, the formula hit a snag. They limp in the playoffs dropping five straight.
George has held his end of the deal when placed between the pipes. He’s faced the third most shots in the OJHL at 1081, while also keeping the Jr. Sabres in games. In 34 starts for the rookie this season, 21 of them were decided by two or fewer goals. After winning 12 of his first 17 starts, George has struggled to pick up a victory in the second half of the season. He’s lost eight straight and hasn’t won January 21st.
In order to help their goaltender out and have a chance to upset North York, Buffalo needs to stop putting themselves in an early hole that they can’t get out of. During their six-game slide, the Jr. Sabres allowed two or more goals in the opening 20 minutes. This does not spell out a deep playoff run.
Similar to the Rangers, they do contain depth throughout their lineup. Six players tallied over 33 points this season, led by the trio of Adam Tretowicz, Trevor Peca and Matt Jakubowski. Tretowicz scored a team-high 28 goals and is currently on a 12 game point streak. Peca is similar to his dad Mike Peca, in his ability to make everyone around him better. The rookie’s 38 assists prove it, while also picking up 11 assists in the last 10 games. Jakubowski is a gritting player with a ton skill that does anything to help the team.
Other notable names to watch out on Buffalo’s side are Zack Nazzarett and Anthony Hora. Nazzarett who only stands at 5’6 contains a great scoring touch and an outstanding ability to find open space. The rookie tallied 19 goals for 42 goals in just 43 games; two of the goals came in the last meeting against the Rangers. Defenseman Hora will be asked to play a ton of minutes this series. After a brief stint in the USHL, the second-year player didn’t miss a beat since returning.
This should be a very entertaining series with numerous possibilities of overtime in the works. The Rangers look to start run that could end a 41-year championship drought, while the Jr. Sabres have failed to advance past the first round four of the last five years.
Oh, and to make things interesting: the previous-best season for the Rangers, 1976-77 saw the team win their first championship.
You bet the team is looking to repeat that feat this Spring.
Photo from Steven Ellis/North York Rangers