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Highway 7 series should come down to goaltending

Anthony Popovich is going to have to step up for the Guelph Storm if they have a chance of beating the Kitchener Rangers
20171124 storm vs colts ts 6
Anthony Popovich. GuelphToday file photo

They were a pair of well-earned wins and the Guelph Storm outplayed the Kitchener Rangers. It can be done.

The two wins over the Rangers in the final week of the regular season will, and should, help with the Storm’s confidence heading into Game 1 Friday night.

But let's not kid ourselves. It comes down to the guy with number 32 on his back.

The chances of the Guelph Storm upsetting the Kitchener Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs increase exponentially if Anthony Popovich can lead the way.

Popovich has shown he can be great this season, and that he is capable of playing several high-end games in a row. But consistency has been his issue and there will be no room for lapses in this series.

Neither of Kitchener's goaltenders, likely starter Mario Culina and backup Luke Richardson, who will likely see some action, are the kind of goaltender that instills fear into the opposition.

Like Popovich, both capable of playing well, both not doing it in long stretches.

The difference is Richardson and Culina benefit from a much deeper blue line group in front of him, meaning he faces less shots than Popovich and, more importantly, lower quality shots.

But let’s not drift off the fact that the Storm also lost 13 of its final regular season games.

The breakdown:

Forwards: Both teams have the big-time goalscorer (Isaac Ratcliffe and Adam Mascherin), both have the crafty playmaker (Cam Hillis and Joseph Garreffa) and both have the skilled veteran that had a disappointing regular season (James McEwan and Connor Bunnaman).

A healthy Logan Brown would give the Rangers a slight advantage up front but he’s been banged up down the stretch, including sitting out a number of games.

Call it a saw-off.

Defence: The Rangers top four of Logan Stanley, Connor Hall, Austin McEneny and Giovanni Vallati are a pretty solid group, particularly as a defensive unit. The Storm group might have a mobility advantage, but it was pretty thin to start with and will now be without Owen Lalonde, out with a shoulder injury.

Kitchener with the clear advantage.

Goaltending: Whichever team's goalie steps up to the plate and finds consistency will be the series deal-breaker.

Special teams: Again, pretty even. Guelph power play ranged seventh, Kitchener 10th in the regular season. Kitchener’s penalty kill was third, Guelph’s ninth.

The Storm certainly can’t afford to spend too much time in the penalty box. With a thin lineup and a tendency to rely on certain players on the penalty kill, it would have a serious impact on wearing that core group down if they are having to kill a lot of penalties.

While I can see a Storm upset as a possibility, I’ve called it Kitchener in six games, based on their defence and home ice advantage.