Knights hope to put a lock on Kitchener

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

Keys? You're looking for keys in the OHL Western Conference final? This series has more keys than a locksmith.

Mike Richards, Andre Benoit, Eric Pfigler, Mike Clarkson, Boris Valabik, Corey Perry, Brandon Prust, the power play and penalty killing.

Pick a key, any key.

The London Knights and Kitchener Rangers embark on their much-anticipated best-of-seven series tonight at the John Labatt Centre. Most everyone expects a close, physical series. The Rangers pounded the Owen Sound Attack and swept that semifinal.

"Game 1 is very important," Knights assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu said. "From Day 1 against Owen Sound, (Kitchener) wanted to set the tone. They'll do that with us. We have to be disciplined, not take bad penalties and protect ourselves."

There is a corollary to this. Why did the Attack allow the Rangers to so dominate them physically?

What do you do with a leader? You give him followers. As with any great player, he will get special companionship provided by the Knights, otherwise called a shadow.

"He is a great player," Beaulieu said. "We have to neutralize him somehow. We watched four game tapes and I don't think he's had a bad shift. He cheats very well on faceoffs. He's a good penalty killer."

Then there's over-age player-of-the-year Andre Benoit. The leading scorer among defencemen and 14th overall in the OHL, he loves jumping into the play.

The Knights will need to have their heads on swivels to see where he's coming from.

All the analysis becomes moot if Eric Pfigler can't stop the puck. Stepping in for injured No. 1 netminder Dan Turple during the Rangers' first playoff series, Pfigler has played better than anyone expected.

So the Knights do have some worries. But for every worry the Knights have, the Rangers have two.

The Rangers have Benoit. The Knights have Danny Syvret and Bryan Rodney, who won't jump into the rush as often as Benoit but are terrific offensive players who will provide plenty of headaches for the Rangers.

The Rangers will have to deal with more than just the OHL's leading scorer in Corey Perry. Rob Schremp, David Bolland, Dylan Hunter and Danny Fritsche can all light it up.

The Rangers must also walk a fine line when it comes to playing a physical game. Even though they had the third-best penalty-killing unit in the regular season and are No. 3 in the playoffs, they cannot afford to take stupid penalties. The Knights were No. 1 in power play and penalty killing in the season and have far and away the No. 1-ranked power play in the playoffs with a success rate of 33.9 per cent.

As talented, strong and in shape as Richards is, he plays an awful lot. If he's forced to spend even more time on the ice killing penalties, he will wear out.

There will be a lot of worn-out players by the end of this series. It will be a tough and competitive six games with the Knights coming out on top.

Players like Clarkson, Adam Keefe, Valabik and others will attempt to intimidate but will find willing partners. The Knights can't allow them to run about unchecked. Players like Prust, Josh Beaulieu and Kelly Thomson will push back. There will be altercations. OK, make that fights.

"He is the heartbeat of our club. We go as he goes," Rangers coach Peter DeBoer said, referring to captain Mike Richards, who has become the focal point of this series.

It's an acknowledgment if he doesn't play well, the Rangers can't win.

"He's tough to handle," said Knights captain Danny Syvret, a teammate of Richards on the gold-medal-winning national junior team. "He's always working hard, always moving his feet. He reads the ice well. Playing with him, you learn to see what a great leader he is. He talked a lot in the dressing room so he's an emotional leader off the ice as well."


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