On the ride to Kitchener to see Game #4 of the London Knights versus the Kitchener Rangers series, I truthfully wasn’t sure what to expect. So with that uncertainty in mind, I picked up my father and off we drove, amped up to see Round #2 of the OHL playoffs.
I knew I was heading up to watch a home team that was desperate to win (down 3-0 in series) and I knew I wanted to watch Jeremy Bracco live and renew my knowledge of Mitch Marner.
Walking into the Aud, I exchanged some dialogue with Marner’s father, Paul. Talked some hockey and then carried on to the seats for the evening. Before the game started, and the arena started to fill, the crowd seemed nervous and quiet. Not wanting their season to be over in Kitchener, once the game started the crowd was electric. I cannot say enough about how charged up and into the game the hometown fans were. That building was a loud as any hockey rink that I have been to in the last few year, so congratulations to that fan base.
Onto the game. Early on it was easy to see who was fired up. Kitchener played like they were shot out of a cannon and a team who wasn’t ready to roll over despite the lopsided series total.
The Rangers jumped out to an early lead on a short side goal and the place went nuts. Jeremy Bracco (Maple Leafs 2nd round, 61st overall) scored the second goal of the game and the Rangers were up 2-0 by the end of the first period.
To say the Knights were flat would be an understatement. The Rangers exposed that lack of energy by getting into open spaces and winning puck battles all over the ice. Coach Hunter would have read the visiting club the riot act during the intermission.
However, just 5 minutes into the second period the Kitchener team extended their lead to 3-0 (assist Bracco) and it looked like London would have to wait another game to try and clinch the series. In an underrated part of the game, Chad Heffernan tried to spark his Knights teammates by engaging in a spirited and solid fight beside the Kitchener net. People will tell you that fighting does nothing for a team or the game. This could not be further from the truth in this instance. Shortly thereafter, London managed to get on the board and with the game 3-1 and lots of time on the clock in the second period, anything seemed possible but it had to happen quickly.
All hopes seemed to be dashed when the Ranger took a commanding 4-1 (four one..four one…four one….) lead with less than five minutes to go in the period.
Then it happened. Mitch Marner received a pass that was behind him, spun as he crossed the blueline and ripped a shot passed the Rangers goalie and at that point we had a game. 4-2 is not a safe lead in any league, and the OHL is no exception. Pressing the play for the rest of the period the Knights registered a bunch of high level chances but could not score. The momentum had definitely shifted.
During the intermission, I met up with Paul again and we talked about what was going right and what was going wrong. Before we parted ways he said to me “whoever gets the next goal, wins this game”. I concurred but 4-2 is a damn tough hill to climb.
Early in the third period, Cliff Pu (draft eligible) scored on an assist from Marner. Two points for Marner, and Pu who had been flying all night was finally rewarded for his efforts. Furthermore, Pu was one of the most engaged players all night long and has speed to burn. A variety of rankings have Pu projected between 30th and 90th. I can see why scouts are warming up to his talent level.
The game was 4-3 at this point and you could see the fire in the eyes of the Knights players. Opposite can be said for the Rangers bench. They knew it would be tough to hang on.
It took another 12 minutes of play (but several chances for both clubs) before the Knights would score again. This time, it was Graves with a point shot, that I truly believe deflected off of Marner for his 2nd goal (and I am hearing it will be officially changed by league), to tie the game up at four goals apiece. Rangers faithful were very subdued at this point, and the London supporters were going berzerk.
Now, I will never know what was said, but during the next faceoff at center ice after the goal, one of the Rangers players was chirping Marner at center ice. They stood there and it looked like Marner was telling him that Mitch was about to score and win the game for London. Again, I cannot confirm it but call it a gut feeling.
The next sequence will amaze me as long as I can remember it. The faceoff was won, and Marner collected the puck just outside of the blueline, danced between the two Rangers defenders and sniped a shot passed the goalie to give the Knights their first lead of the game. Just TEN seconds after the game tying goal, and the conversation at the faceoff. Marner had taken over the hockey game. Incredible.
With the Rangers net empty, a very selfless act by Christian Dvorak, Marner scored his hat trick goal and sealed the victory for the Knights (again, I believe it was his fourth of the game and time will tell). After that goal, Marner and his line stayed on the ice for what I calculated was the final 4 minutes of the game. Most star players of Marners size will just try to chip pucks out of the zone, Marner laid down in an attempt to block 3 shots in the final minute of the game. That, more than the hat trick, was what impressed me the most.
Final score Knights 6 and the Rangers 4. London swept the series four games to none and move on to the third round of the OHL playoffs. An impressive feat, and a game I will remember for a long time.
The future is bright.