Jason Willms grew up such a die-hard Rangers fan, sometimes Friday nights and Sunday afternoons at the old Memorial Auditorium weren’t enough.
“I remember even traveling to games in Guelph or London to watch them play,” said the 21-year-old Knights centre and Kitchener native. “But it’s changed. I won’t be cheering for them. That ended when I got drafted by Barrie. It’s another big game and the standings are still pretty tight.
“It’s my first game with the rivalry. I’m looking forward to it.”
The joust for the top of the Midwest Division — and Western Conference — will be the best race left in the last month of the OHL schedule.
The Knights have lost just twice in 2020 — in Saginaw Jan. 11 and, most recently, the 10-game streak-snapping loss to Guelph in Tuesday’s Hall of Fame tilt.
Kitchener has dropped four games since New Year’s, three of them in overtime. Their only regulation loss was to Flint two weeks ago.
Slip once in this points chase and you’re playing catch-up.
“Things have been going pretty well around here lately,” Willms said, “so we’re looking to bounce back right away (after the Storm defeat).”
Willms was brought in to help London finish first again. He has been a terrific faceoff man and a major defensive contributor.
He anchored a line with Matvey Guskov and Billy Moskal that buried Saginaw’s big unit of Cole Perfetti, Ryan Suzuki and Cole Coskey last week.
But he also had a glorious chance in the slot for some second-period insurance against the Storm and couldn’t cash in. He has one goal and four points in 13 games with the Knights after 18 goals and 41 points in 35 games with Barrie this season.
“You can take a look at the stats and it’s not quite the same,” he said. “I knew coming into this it’s about being a piece to the puzzle for a championship team. I knew we had the firepower up front with (Liam) Foudy and (Connor) McMichael. I wouldn’t have to be the guy to score all the time, so I’m not getting on my case about it.
“I’m at my best when I’m working hard and competing and shutting down a top line. It’s about showing up and giving my best effort. Obviously, I want to chip in a little more than I have been since coming here, but I’m trying not to get too frustrated.”
Any offence he adds will be much appreciated.
In January, Knights GM Mark Hunter moved Josh Nelson and Cole Tymkin, two 20-year-olds who weren’t providing scoring punch.
He used another precious over-age spot to solidify the defence with trusted winner Markus Phillips, who spent the first half of the season in pro ranks, and a third one on goalie Dylan Myskiw, still looking for his first action in a month.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have a combined 76 goals and 160 points from their three 20-year-old forwards, Greg Meireles, Liam Hawel and Jonathan Yantsis.
Those are three of the top Blueshirt contributors that Knights like Willms and Phillips have to stop.
“They get the best players on the other team all the time and that’s a big assignment,” Mark Hunter said. “They’ve done a really good job and that’s why we’ve won some games (10 of the past 11). It just doesn’t happen. He (Willms) has accepted that role and embraced it. He’s working hard in both ends and being a plus player.
“We need to play a style that fits our team and that’s playing really good defence. Willms plays really good defence. Hopefully, he can get some pucks to drop for him.”
FULL SQUAD: For the second time this week, Knights forward Liam Foudy will play an OHL game while recovering from NHL duty. The Friday meeting with Kitchener will be his fourth game in five days at two different levels. But Buffalo, N.Y., is a little closer than Columbus, so if weather permits, he should be a little more rested than when he was trying to catch some shut-eye in the dressing room before the loss to Guelph Tuesday. It’s a challenge to bounce between leagues and excel, but this is certainly a week the 20-year-old will never forget. If the Blue Jackets really want to put him through the wringer, they could grab him on emergency recall again Sunday in New Jersey after the Knights’ Saturday tilt in Kingston. The reason he isn’t available for Columbus’ game Friday in New York is because it conflicts with a Knights game. The Jackets can use him in this way five times for the rest of the month.
AROUND THE RINK: The Knights and Rangers split their first four meetings, but Kitchener won both of their games while Foudy, McMichael and Dale Hunter were with Canada’s world junior team. They’re back for this one . . . Nelson has six goals and 10 points in 15 games since joining the Colts. He had four goals and 15 points in 37 games with London . . . Tymkin has four goals and 12 points in five games with Caledonia in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. The Corvairs, back after a one-year hiatus, have run away with the Golden Horseshoe Conference. Tymkin, by the way, still leads the Knights with 73 penalty minutes and that 33-game total may just be good enough to stay on top. Gerard Keane is next with 52 . . . London’s highest-scoring rookie? D-man Kirill Steklov, with seven points . . . London first-year goaltender Brett Brochu and Kitchener’s No. 1, Jacob Ingham, have similar statistics in wins, goals against average and save percentage. But where they really differ is in shot volume. Brochu averages about 26.2 shots against per game; the Rangers’ stopper sees 36.2. Of course, shot keeping varies — sometimes wildly — from rink to rink in the OHL . . . Who has the harder schedule down the stretch? It’s pretty close. London plays in Ottawa Monday, and sees Oshawa and Flint at home in March. Kitchener heads to Saginaw Saturday, visits Flint the following weekend and is home to the Firebirds and Peterborough in March. The Knights and Rangers meet for the sixth and final time March 3 at the Aud.
Friday: vs. Kitchener, 7:30 p.m. Rangers have won last two meetings by combined 11-2 score.
Saturday: at Kingston, 7 p.m. Exceptional Shane Wright leads all rookies in goals (32) and points (55).
Monday: at Ottawa, 2 p.m. Family Day game of the year candidate between two league titans.