Rangers power on

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

KITCHENER -- The Rangers waited five years to play a Memorial Cup game.

Who knew it would be an exact recreation of the seven-game OHL final they just finished this week against the Belleville Bulls?

The Rangers blew a 3-0 lead, let a doomed team battle back from the dead before finally pulling out a 6-5 overtime victory over the Gatineau Olympiques in the Cup opener before a packed house last night at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

Justin Azevedo, the OHL's leading scorer and MVP, scored the winner 6:59 into the extra session on a high wrist shot that beat goalie Ryan Mior.

The Rangers returned to the Memorial Cup tournament the same way they ended it in 2003 -- celebrating a win over the Olympiques.

Kitchener won the battle of the top lines. The Rangers got a combined three goals and eight points from its top unit of Azevedo, Matt Halischuk and Nick Spaling.

Gatineau's Paul Byron had a goal and Claude Giroux, who had 51 points in his previous 19 games, was held to a single assist in regulation against the close checking of tank-like Kitchener captain Matt Pepe.

OUTSHOT 46-28

But Giroux's one point came on Alexandre Quesnel's third-period goal that sent the contest to overtime.

Kitchener, looking early as dominant as it did on home ice all season, scored the game's first three goals and outshot the Quebec league champs 22-9 in the first 20 minutes. They had a 46-28 edge at the end of the third period, but none of the momentum.

Wearing one-time, military-themed cream sweaters that are heading for auction in support of the K-W poppy fund, the Rangers went to battle with a depleted back end.

Pepe's regular defensive partner Yannick Weber is hurt. So is big Pittsburgh draft pick Robert Bortuzzo. Both stood in uniform on the blue line with their teammates for pre-game introductions.

Star goalie Steve Mason did not. He's recovering from knee surgery and his health is the big question mark hanging over this entire tournament.

But his replacement -- Chicago prospect Josh Unice -- won big games for the Rangers all season and Pepe had successfully contained junior hockey's biggest scorers.

Kitchener coach Peter DeBoer kept converted veteran forward Scott Tregunna on defence and had him partner with steady Dan Kelly. That left Pepe to play with puck-handler Ben Shutron.

'A BIG HELP'

"I played defence in Owen Sound a couple of times when we were shorthanded," Tregunna said. "The guys have really been a big help. The forwards come back hard and my defence partners have been great. Plus, Josh (Unice) has been superb for us and that never hurts."

Giroux is a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who has scored more than 100 points in each of his three seasons of major junior hockey. He had 51 in 19 playoff games this spring.

Pepe thought the assignment was the same as when he held Sarnia Sting standout Steve Stamkos to two goals in a four-game second round series. In the second period, Pepe took a high-sticking penalty for accidentally clipping Giroux in the face.

"I've been playing against the top lines all year," he said. "I know what it's like for other teams to go against our top line.

"It's never an easy thing."

At the other end, Azevedo's cheeky backhand passes torched the Olympiques' defence for three goals. But even with two late power-play attempts in regulation, the Rangers couldn't close the deal.

They finally did in overtime.


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