Yesterday afternoon, in the Ontario Hockey League, something happened that fans have only experienced twice before in OHL history. A team came back from a three games-to-none playoff series deficit to win the series in seven. And that is the genuine and pure beauty of sports. We say it a lot, but it’s absolutely true – anything can happen. Absolute euphoria for one team. Crushing defeat for another. And that’s why sports are one of the greatest obsessions in our world.
Just one week ago, Steve Spott’s Kitchener Rangers were comfortably up three games in their OHL Western Conference Final Series on the Windsor Spitfires, who sport the firepower of F Taylor Hall and D Ryan Ellis. The Rangers finished the regular season a full 15 points behind the defending Memorial Cup champion, star-studded Spits. Kitchener had gained their series lead based on the scoring of C Jeff Skinner, the goaltending of Brandon Maxwell and an unbelievably fluky goal at the end of Game Three. That’s when Rangers’ rookie Gabriel Landeskog flipped the puck into the Spits’ zone, from centre, and it took a series of weird bounces and got past Windsor netminder Troy Passingham. Boom – Rangers 3, Spitfires 0.
And this where the spectacular unpredictability of major junior hockey comes into play. These kids are just teenagers. Many will never, ever play at a higher level than this. Can you imagine what the Rangers were thinking? Holy cow, we have a three-game lead on one of the best teams in the league! We can shock the world by eliminating Windsor! And now, since they have begun thinking, Kitchener is, of course, suddenly in big trouble. They lost Game Four at home in The Aud. That’s the game they had to win. They let the door open a crack to a team that pulled an amazing comeback at last year’s Memorial Cup. It’s a defeat those teenagers will never, ever forget.
Here’s proof. This kind of comeback has only occurred twice in Stanley Cup Playoff history. First in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final as Hap Day’s Maple Leafs rallied to defeat Jack Adams’ Red Wings. Then, in 1975, the New York Islanders did the same to the Pittsburgh Penguins. A few years ago, our Sportsnet television crew approached former Penguins’ defenceman Dave Burrows. We asked, “Dave, can we ask you some questions about the 1975 Stanley Cup Playoffs?” Burrows immediately replied, “Is that the year the Islanders came back on us?” Burrows knew. He recounted that series like it was yesterday. Athletes don’t forget things like that. They can’t. It’s like watching a train wreck. You watch it happen and you are powerless to stop it.
And that’s why I truly feel for the Kitchener Rangers. A lot of them will never, ever get this close to a championship again. After their junior careers, some will go on to play professional hockey. Some will go to university. Many will not play truly organized hockey ever again.
In 1988, the Ottawa 67’s (head coach Brian Kilrea, forward Andrew Cassels) came back on the Oshawa Generals (goaltender Jeff Hackett). In 2005, the Windsor Spitfires (tough guy Steve Downie) came back on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (head coach Craig Hartsburg, forward Jeff Carter). But those were both first-round shockers.
These Rangers will never, ever forget the time they did what none in OHL history had before them – totally blow a three-game lead in the Conference Final. Try to forget about it boys. And recognize that you never will.