There was a whole lot of heart showcased on and off the ice at the Aud on Tuesday night.
Connor Bunnaman scored his 30th goal of the season for the first time in his OHL career, and the Kitchener Rangers (33-23-2-2) held on for a 4-3 win over the Guelph Storm (20-34-3-2) in front of 6,644 fans during ‘Pevs Protects Night’ at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.
The win clinched a berth in the 2017 OHL postseason for the Rangers, who – statistically speaking – could finish anywhere between fourth and eighth place in the Western Conference standings.
Bunnaman’s 30th was especially meaningful, as the centreman scored the goal after returning to the game after taking a puck to the face which shattered his visor. Complete with nose plugs, busted nose, and a cage, his resiliency caused him to miss only a limited amount of time-on-ice then give the Rangers the lead just over a minute into the middle frame after his return.
Luke Richardson (8-2-0-0) was once again steady in goal for the Rangers, making 36 saves on 39 Guelph shots.
Anthony Popovich (7-15-0-1) took the loss, surrendering four goals but helping the Storm to kill off seven of eight Kitchener power plays on the night.
Rangers’ rearguards were another storyline, as Giovanni Vallati, Dylan Di Perna and Frank Hora were the other Kitchener goal scorers on the night.
Inside the final five minutes of play in the game’s opening period the Rangers commanded play in the Storm end, but after clearing the puck it was Guelph who capitalized, taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by Matt Hotchkiss, from Ryan Merkley and Cedric Ralph at 17:32.
The Rangers would immediately answer back, however, as captain Hora reached a new career high in goals with his fifth of the season just 28 seconds later, from Riley Damiani and Adam Mascherin at 18:00.
The first period of play would end in a 1-1 stalemate with shots in favour if the Rangers, 16-10.
Bunnaman’s 30th of the season came just 1:37 into the second period, giving Kitchener a 2-1 lead from Hora and Jake Henderson.
Dylan Di Perna extended the Kitchener lead to 3-1 with his eighth of the season, a power play goal from Mascherin and Joseph Garreffa at 10:44 of the second period.
Shots on goal during the middle frame were 14-12 Kitchener for a two-period total of 30-22, Rangers.
Vallati notched his fifth of the season during 4-on-4 play at 4:36 of the third period, assisted by Di Perna and Greg Meireles, to give the Rangers a 4-1 lead.
The Storm would get one back just moments later though, as Liam Stevens tallied his seventh of the season to cut the Kitchener lead to 4-2, from Quinn Hanna and Hotchkiss at 8:43.
Guelph would make things interesting, lighting the lamp once again to turn what was once a 4-1 Kitchener lead to 4-3, as Nate Schnarr notched his 15th goal, from James McEwan and Merkley on the power play with just 3:23 to play at 16:37.
Despite the Storm pulling Popovich in favour of an extra attacker, the equalizer would never come as the Rangers skated to the 4-3 win and a guaranteed berth in the post-season.
Kitchener was 1-for-8 on the power play, while Guelph was 1-for-4 with the man advantage.
Matt Hotchkiss (GUE) (3), Dylan Di Perna (KIT) (2), and Connor Bunnaman (KIT) (1) were selected as the Three Stars of the Game.
‘Pevs Protects Night’: Pevs Protects was developed by former National Hockey League forward Rich Peverley and his family, in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Pevs Protects aims to raise awareness and funds for AED (Automated External Defibrilator) purchases and training including right here in Waterloo Region, as well as CPR training in collaboration with organizations such as the HSF.
Peverley, along with friend, former teammate and former Rangers’ forward Gregory Campbell, as well as Tim Forsyth of the Kitchener Fire Department dropped the puck before the game for a ceremonial faceoff.
Dylan Di Perna and Darby Llewellyn each wore an “A” and skated as alternates to Rangers captain Frank Hora.
The Rangers continue their busy week on Thursday when they travel to St. Catharines to take on the Niagara IceDogs for a 7pm start on March 2nd. Kitchener comes home to host Midwest Division rival, the London Knights, on Friday, March 3rd at 7:30pm.
Regular season tickets to Kitchener Rangers home games are $22.50 each for adults, $18.50 for children 12 and under, including HST and are available in person or by calling the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium Box Office or Centre in the Square (519) 578-1570 -or- 1-800-265-8977, or by purchasing online.