Tiago Rocha made 30 saves to backstop the Rangers to a 6-3 win over Grimsby in his first action since Jan. 6.


GLANBROOK (Mar. 1) — It’s almost as inevitable as death and taxes that the Glanbrook Rangers and the Grimsby Peach Kings will end up duelling for the Bloomfield Division championship.   With absolute respect to the other teams in the loop, and acknowledging that in the hurly-burly of the playoffs anything can happen, both history and current example suggest that these two bitter rivals will once again square off in the divisional final, as they have done for what seems like a generation.

That’s why this, their final meeting of the season — which Glanbrook won by a 6-3 margin — held such magnitude.

“Both teams are trying to show dominance and make statements,” said Rangers’ forward Terry Bridgland.  “It’s playoff hockey before the playoffs.  We know we are most likely to meet again and guys were going out and making their point.”

And one point that was made loud and clear during this game is that if and when these two teams meet again, there will be fireworks.   This game had all the ferocity of a playoff tilt.   The first period was played at a feverish pace; flat-out where the slightest gaffe could prove fatal.  And it was Glanbrook’s good fortune that Grimsby blinked first, as a Peach King defender banked a clearing pass off goaltender Nolan Verardo and into his own net to put the hosts ahead 1-0 at 13:05.   Owen Johnston got the credit for the goal.

“It was a real back-and-forth battle up to that point,” said Glanbrook coach Andrew Tait.  “We got that fortunate bounce, and for a while it took the wind out of their sails.”

Just a couple of minutes later,  under the brunt of some tenacious forechecking, the Peach King defence turned the puck over deep in their zone to Glanbrook’s Eric Taylor, who fed Ty Crombie in the mid-slot and he made no mistake to extend the lead to 2-0.    The Rangers outshot the visitors 17-9 in the frenzied frame and could have had an even bigger edge, but they hit the post with shots at least three times.

“Yeah, it doesn’t matter if it’s game 1 or game 42 or whatever, our guys show up to play Grimsby,” said Tait.  “It’s intensity, it’s high energy.  We want to make sure they know we’re coming.”

Unfortunately, the ensuing action was less firewagon and more paddy wagon as the Peach Kings responded to their plight by spending a large portion of their time trying to separate Ranger skulls  from their shoulders.   Over the course of the final two periods, Grimsby was assessed no less than five head contact penalties, along with assorted slashes, cross-checks, abuse of officials, etc., amounting to a total of 16 infractions.   The Rangers were slightly less culpable, but still took more penalties than they should have, often for unsportsmanlike contest, a by-product of the relentless taunting going on.

“It doesn’t help, and it’s not what we want to be involved in,” said Tait.  “I guess the only thing you can say about it is that it gave the teams the chance to work on their penalty-killing and power plays.”

One positive aspect for the Rangers that was almost lost amid the furor,  was the steadfast contribution of goaltender Tiago Rocha, making his long-awaited return to the lineup after being sidelined for several weeks with a lower-body injury.  Early on, before the Rangers went ahead, he made several crucial saves.  Not flashy (they came later), but rock-solid positional saves on dangerous redirects that indicated he was suffering no ill-effects from his extended absence.

“It felt great to be back,” said Rocha, whose last appearance was in an overtime loss to these same Peach Kings back on Jan. 6.   “I missed the game a lot.  I think I played good for a first game back, but I did feel rusty.  My footwork was off for sure.”

Maybe, but the only time the Peach Kings managed to beat Rocha was when Blake Venneri converted on a two-on-none break after intercepting a bad pass at the opposite blueline early in the second period, and goals by Angus Pollock and Aidan Leblanc in the latter stages of the third period when the Rangers were well in front and everybody had mayhem on their minds by that point anyway.

Having Rocha back in top form will be a huge asset for the Rangers going forward.

“He wanted it.  He’s been champing at the bit to get back in there,” said Tait.  “He’s a competitor and he wants to make sure he’s as ready as possible for the playoffs.  That’s the benefit for us of having two strong goaltenders (Rocha and Jason Sviergula).  If one guy goes down, the other is there to pick up the slack.  We’re going to depend on them.”

With Rocha providing the support, the Rangers got two goals from Bridgland and singles from Tyler Smeda and Cooper Hood to finish off their scoring and complete a  5-1-0-1 season record against the Peach Kings, outscoring them 30-14.

The Rangers now have just one game left in the regular season — a make-up game against Hagersville Hawks on Sunday, Mar. 5 (1:30 p.m., Glanbrook Arena) — before they head into the playoff bye they earned by finishing first in the Bloomfield Division.

“The guys are going to get together and couple of times a week, get some team bonding going and then get out on the ice and go over game plans and keep the legs moving,” said Bridgland of the Rangers’ plans for their down-time.  “I feel our message got across to Grimsby and the league:  this year Glanbrook is all in and we aren’t going to be a team you want to meet in the playoffs.”

NOTES:  Hood became the second Ranger to hit the 30-goal plateau this season.  Sean Golebiowski has 31.   … Justin Vermeulen had three assists for the Rangers, while Golebiowski and Ryan Burke had two helpers each … The Rangers, with 71 points, are leading the league in points.  A win against Hagersville on Sunday would virtually guarantee that they finish as the top team in the PJHL.