Forwards step up
Rangers beat Steelheads despite depleted defence
MISSISSAUGA — Forwards were volunteering to play defence.
That’s how thin the blue line was for the Kitchener Rangers in their school day game against the Mississauga Steelheads on Wednesday afternoon.
Suspensions, an injury and the flu pushed four starting rearguards to the sidelines for the tilt at the Hershey Centre.
But the skeleton crew played heartbreaker on Valentine’s Day by beating the Fish, 3-2, much to the dismay of the 5,000-plus screaming kids who got most of the day off school to attend the affair.
“I thought they were exceptional,” said Rangers coach Jay McKee, of his five-man defensive unit.
Kitchener was missing its three most veteran players.
Logan Stanley was wrapping up his two-game suspension for checking to the head while Austin McEneny was beginning his two-gamer for biting. Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Connor Hall is out with an upper-body injury and rookie Jack York had the flu.
That left sophomore Giovanni Vallati, rookie Michael Vukojevic, converted forward Joseph Garreffa, veteran Kyle Gentles and Jr. B call-up Alex Peterson to handle the Fish, who came into the contest on a 10-3-0-1 run.
“It’s a heavy load for those guys,” said McKee.
“That club (Mississauga) is definitely a better club than it shows in the standings and I think our young guys did a great job.”
There was a definite hometown advantage Wednesday.
Kids from schools across Mississauga showed their support by cheering, dancing and holding signs of encouragement.
And the Trout fed off the enthusiasm.
Albert Michnac completed a pretty passing play on the power play to pop his 21st of the season past Kitchener keeper Mario Culina just shy of the eight-minute mark of the first period.
Fans were still celebrating the goal when Rangers centre Logan Brown answered 32 seconds later. Kole Sherwood added a pair — for 24 on the season — before the break to give the Blueshirts a 3-1 lead.
Mississauga winger Nicholas Canade made it a one-goal game by taking a pass as he stepped out of the penalty box, racing in on Culina and going short side with the puck midway through the third.
The marker set up a tense finish.
Kitchener’s defence was hanging on as players such as Vallati and Garreffa closed in on nearly 40 minutes of ice time.
“Everyone battled and played to the best of their abilities,” said Vallati. “It was a good team effort. It was tough playing with five D but we’re looking forward to getting Stanley back for the next game and to keep things going.”
Culina was sensational and made 27 saves to improve to 10-0 with the Rangers.
The Blueshirts have won three consecutive games and 10 of their past 11 but a busy week looms. Friday, it’s off to London to face the Knights then it’s east to Kingston on Sunday and Ottawa on Monday.
Kitchener centre Greg Meireles returned to action after missing the past 13 games with a lower-body injury and played a smart and physical game.
“I felt pretty good out there,” he said. “My conditioning is still not there but it felt great to be back with the guys and helping the team out.”