Knights primed for playoff run
Credit: Fanshawe Athletics
London Knights defenseman and Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Scott Harrington helped lead the Knights to a sixth OHL West title since 2003.
But what's the season been like for the London Knights? In my book, it's been one where we've seen two very different teams. First up was a team that won 24 straight games from November through December, almost tying the CHL record. In the second half was a team that looked so vulnerable that anyone could beat them on any given night.
But that is the beauty of junior hockey. While people look up to these athletes, some of them future NHL players, it's often hard to forget that most of these players are in fact in their teens. And yet, the pressure of a hockey-crazy city like London rests on the shoulders of these young men.
“You have ups and downs during the season,” said Knights assistant general manager Rob Simpson. “It's tough on the players. We're just focused now on peaking at the right time heading out of the regular season and onto the playoffs.”
This season's capturing of the Hamilton Spectator trophy as regular season champions sees the Knights take home the top seed in the Western Conference for the sixth time since 2003. And while last season's team captured so many hearts across the country, coming to within one goal of the Memorial Cup, this season's team has much more potential to go one better.
But they're inconsistent on occasion.
In London's defence, though, the OHL's Western Conference can be an unforgiving place for the underprepared. The NHL's top draft picks usually come from this side of the league and the Memorial Cup representative, more often than not, comes from this half of the province as well.
“After you won 24 games in a row, sure, losing a few straight will seem like a letdown,” added Simpson. “Now, we're feeling the playoffs and playing solid. The boys know if they play this certain way and everyone plays the way they're supposed to, they can win hockey games.”
The Knights crop of players born in 1994 and 1995 form the core of this team, and the scary part for most teams in the league is that all of these players will be back next season, unless they make the NHL. What has impressed me the most with the London Knights is the ability for a player to fill in when others might be going through a minor mid-season slump.
Take Bo Horvat, for instance. There's a great chance he'll be London's top pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, higher than the more popular Max Domi. Why? Because Horvat is showing what he can do on a regular basis when top players like Domi or Seth Griffith are missing from the lineup. At the time of writing, Horvat had 57 points in 62 games, fourth in the line-up behind Domi, Griffith and Alex Broadhurst.
Then the Seth Griffith injury came along. Up until he broke a bone on his right hand on February 10, Griffith went about four years without missing a game. When you do the math, that goes back to 256 regular season games, split between the Knights and St. Marys Lincolns (Jr. B), as well as 40 playoff games and four in the Memorial Cup. With the injury, Griffith's hopes of challenging for the OHL scoring title are pretty much over, but his teammates stepped up in his absence. In the weeks following Griffith's injury, you wouldn't notice that the leading point getter wasn't playing because the team was offensively strong.
And if you thought booting the Knights (and indeed the London Lightning) out of the Budweiser Gardens so that the World Figure Skating Championships can be held in the city would change anything, think again. “Many of the guys on our team have the experience of playing and winning the OHL last season,” said Simpson. “Playing on the road will give us some team bonding right before the playoffs, and when we do comeback, I know the city of London will be happy to have us back.
“They will have missed their London Knights hockey.”
This season's playoffs will be interesting. A quick glance at the OHL Western Conference standings sees a London-Saginaw matchup. As champions, the Knights will have home ice advantage throughout the series. “Home ice advantage is key heading into the playoffs, whether it is in the Western Division or in the league as a whole,” said Simpson. “It's more of an accomplishment where we've guaranteed ourselves four out of seven games in every series.”
Last season it was a late addition Austin Watson that made all the difference in the playoffs and in the Memorial Cup. This season, general manager Mark Hunter made the decision to stay put with the current crop of players and instead signed a bunch of blue chip prospects.
Will that mean a different result from last season? Only time will tell.