OHL playoffs: London Knights oust Kitchener Rangers in 4-game sweep

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KITCHENER – Max McCue said it best. The ‘Jet’ is fueling up.

London forward Jacob Julien, the Winnipeg prospect, recorded a second straight hat trick to help the Knights sweep the Kitchener Rangers into summer vacation with a 4-3, Game 4 victory before 7,258 Thursday at the Memorial Auditorium.

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“It’s great to be able to do that and help the team,” the 19-year-old London native said. “I just played our systems, kept it simple and crashed the net hard. You listen to the coaches, they tell you what to do and it ended up working out for us.”

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The Knights, still undefeated through two playoff rounds, will meet the winner of the Saginaw-Sault Ste. Marie battle in the Western Conference final  starting next week. Julien was the first OHLer to post two hat tricks in the same series since Barrie’s Justin Scott did it eight years ago in the first round against Mississauga.

The high hockey-IQ centre with the long reach scored seven goals and nine points in London’s first sweep of the Rangers since their 2016 run to the Memorial Cup title.

“He put us on his back here in these past two games,” McCue said. “We saw that all year and it was nice to continue that in the playoffs. We have a lot of guys who can step up and fill roles. We also have a lot of guys who can do different things when we have a full lineup.”

London Knights goalie Michael Simpson stops a shot by Mathew Sop of the Kitchener Rangers in the second period of their OHL playoff game at the Auditorium in Kitchener on Thursday April 18, 2024. Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network

THE DIFFERENCE: The Knights scored 20 goals in four games against Kitchener but the over-arching theme was their relentless pursuit on the defensive side. They stymied the desperate Rangers, who couldn’t organize many clean breakouts in the third period with their season on the line.

“We had a two-goal lead there and played defence,” London head coach Dale Hunter said. “We forechecked hard and just kept above the puck all the time. We have older guys and they know how to play hockey. We locked it down pretty well and (goaltender Michael Simpson) had to make a couple of saves at the end. They scored (with the goaltender pulled), but it was all good.”

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Rookie Sam O’Reilly returned from a two-game suspension and filled in down the middle for over-ager Kaleb Lawrence, who served the first of his five-game ban for a head check.

Most importantly, the Knights only gave the Rangers two power plays in the final game and shut both those down.

“We played physical,” Dale Hunter said. “That’s the game in the playoffs. You need to play hard, play good defence and get timely scoring.”

It never hurts to have ‘Jet’ fuel, either.

SUSPENSION REACTION: The Knights showed another level of determination after Lawrence learned of his lengthy ban early Thursday. Julien scored 39 seconds into the first period and London got its cycle game going in a hurry.

“We definitely came out hard,” Julien said. “Kaleb is a big piece of the pie. Unfortunately, he got suspended. We tried to come out as hard as we could, quiet the crowd and play our game.”

The Knights didn’t agree with a five-game suspension for Lawrence, but accepted that the league saw it that way.

“It’s a little confusing looking at it overall,” London associate GM Rob Simpson said, “but that’s their decision and you have to go with it. We think it was a little bit more incidental contact so it’s open to interpretation from the person viewing it.”

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London certainly didn’t appreciate Kitchener GM Mike McKenzie angling for supplemental discipline against the Knights through the media and suggesting there were a number of other offences that went unpenalized. That type of complaining has been a common theme in recent series between the clubs and it’s in bad taste.

“We’re not going to go to the papers and send in every single call to the league,” Simpson said. “We play physical just like they do. There are plenty of hits on our defencemen and it’s part of the game. I don’t know what hits he’s talking about other than the Lawrence one. Most times, players lay clean hits and that’s part of the playoffs.”

AROUND THE RINK: The Knights are the only unbeaten team left in the OHL playoffs and have won 15 straight games dating back to the regular season . . . Maple Leafs first-rounder Easton Cowan drew an assist after being shut out in Game 3 . . . London has knocked out Kitchener in six of the last seven playoff series between the two rivals. All four Knights OHL titles involved beating the Rangers along the way . . . London scored in the opening minute of the first period in the final three games. It was shocking how it kept happening . . .  The Knights also scored a power-play goal in every contest while shutting down Kitchener in three of the four . . . Kasper Halttunen had a strong series with three goals and seven points while Jackson Edward had a goal, six points and a plus-7 rating while playing against many of Kitchener’s best scorers . . . The Knights made it tough on Kitchener goaltender Jackson Parsons, who played to a 4.58 goals against average and .846 save percentage in four games . . . Julien took a lot of the key faceoffs down the stretch, but Kitchener’s Filip Mesar and Matthew Sop are pretty good at it, too. “I’m glad the coaches believed in me,” he said. “It worked out alright. I could have done better but we got the win, which is all that matters.” . . . The St. Marys Lincolns open their Sutherland Cup round-robin schedule Saturday in Fort Erie. They return home to face Listowel Sunday, 7:30 p.m. at the Pyramid Rec Centre.

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Knights vs. Rangers

(London wins best-of-seven Western conference semifinal 4-0)
London goals: Jacob Julien (3), Kasper Halttunen
Kitchener goals: Trent Swick (2), Carson Rehkopf

Thursday at Kitchener Memorial Auditorium

Knights 4, Rangers 3

First period
1., London, Julien 5 (Gazizov) 0:39
2. Kitchener, Rehkopf 6 (Brzustewicz, Stark) 11:15
Penalties – Woolley, Ldn (slashing) 6:53, Cowan, Ldn (holding), Andonovski, Kit (roughing) 16:02, Martin, Kit (roughing, 10-minute misconduct) 18:56.

Second period
3. London, Julien 6 (Halttunen, Cowan) 13:54 (pp)
4. London, Julien 7 (Edward, Gazizov) 16:52
5. London, Halttunen 6 (Dickinson) 17:46
6. Kitchener, Swick 4 (Sop, Andonovski) 19:42
Penalties – London, bench (too many men, served by Van Gorp) 1:13, Cowan, Ldn (diving), Andonovski, Kit (cross-checking) 7:29, Mesar, Kit (high-sticking) 12:10.

Third period
7. Kitchener, Swick 5 (Mesar, Brzustewicz) 17:13
Penalties – None.

Shots on goal by
London 9 15 5–29
Kitchener 6 11 12–29

Power plays: Ldn 1-2. Kit 0-2.

Goalies: Simpson, Ldn (W, 8-0). Parsons, Kit (L, 4-6).

Referees – Aaron Neely, Tyson Stewart. Linesmen – Nick Arcan, Adam Harris.

Attendance – 7,258.

Three stars: 1. Jacob Julien, Knights; 2. Kasper Halttunen, Knights; 3. Trent Swick, Rangers

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