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March 09--The Erie Otters needed a wake-up call Saturday night to keep pace in the OHL's tight Western Conference playoff race.
Their high-powered offense and stifling defense provided it. The Otters scored six unanswered goals while holding Midwest Division rival Kitchener to six shots on goal over the final two periods on the way to a 7-3 comeback win in front of a sellout crowd of 6,674 fans -- the second largest in franchise history -- at Erie Insurance Arena.
"We just kind of woke up there," said Connor McDavid, who had a goal and two assists to give him 11 points in the past three games and 93 points on the season. "(The Rangers) are struggling. They're out of the playoffs. It's easy to get down and not get ready for the game. We certainly didn't start well, but we finished well."
A fifth straight win moved the Otters (49-14-2-0) within one point of idle Guelph with three regular-season games left in the battle for the league's regular-season title and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The third-place Otters also remained one point ahead of fourth-place London, which won 5-1 in Owen Sound on Saturday.
Still, Erie's latest victory wasn't easy.
The Rangers (22-40-2-1) gave the Otters tough battles throughout the six-game season series.
On Saturday night, they jumped to a 1-0 lead on Matia Marcantuoni's power-play goal with 8 minutes, 56 seconds left in the first period. They extended the lead to 2-0 in the second period, as Ryan MacInnis fired a shot from the left wing past goaltender Oscar Dansk at the 6:39 mark.
McDavid slipped past the Rangers' defense for his 25th goal of the season to cut the Otters' deficit to 2-1 less than two minutes later. Nick Magyar squeezed a shot through Dansk with 9:22 left in the period to regain Kitchener's two-goal lead at 3-1.
That's when Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch replaced Dansk (three goals on 12 shots) with Devin Williams, who rejoined the team Friday after spending several days this past week at home in Saginaw, Mich., taking mandatory standardized tests at his home school. That's also when the Otters' defense tightened and the offense awakened.
Joel Wigle turned Kurtis MacDermid's drop pass into his sixth goal of the season at the 13:36 mark. Then MacDavid found Dane Fox for the first of his two goals -- his OHL-best 61st and 62nd of the season -- to tie the score at 3 just 41 seconds later.
Erie outshot the Rangers 13-4 in the middle period. Then the Otters took the control early in the third with goals from Andre Burakovsky -- his 37th of the season -- and Fox.
"We know as a team now that we can do it," Brendan Gaunce said of rallying from behind.
Troy Donnay and Gaunce capped the win with a pair of short-handed goals into an empty net in final minute of play to give the Otters 24 goals in their perfect three-game homestand.
Gaunce finished with a goal and three assists. McDavid had a goal and two assists. Donnay (goal, assist) and Connor Brown (two assists) added two points apiece.
"We always knew we could score. It just wasn't coming to us as easy as it was before in games," Gaunce said. "I think we found way to bear down in front of the net. All our goals aren't pretty right now. But they're going in the net."
- Notes: Fox (101 points) joins Brown (123) as the only players in franchise history to top the 100-point mark in a season. ... Adam Pelech had an assist to move within three of tying Chris Campoli's franchise record of 46 set in the 2003-04 season. ... The Otters won four of six games in the season series with the Rangers. ... The Otters have recorded five crowds of 6,000 or more this season. ... Guelph has a game in hand on the Otters and Knights. The Storm play today at 4:05 p.m. at last-place Sarnia.
VICTOR FERNANDES can be reached at 870-1716 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/goeriehockey. Read the Shootout hockey blog at GoErie.com/blogs/shootout and post comments. Head to the Shootout blog and Twitter for postgame interviews from the Otters' win over the Rangers.
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