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London Knights – 2011/12 so far

February 4, 2012

In their 10th season at the luxurious John Labatt Centre, this wasn’t supposed to be the year the London Knights would challenge for the Memorial Cup.  Their core group of ’94s and ’95s that were supposed to learn and and gain experience during the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons and come out gunning in 2012/13.  A tough exit in the 10/11 playoffs was considered one of the learning experiences along the way.

After last season, I wondered where the goals were going to come from.  As well, veterans Stephen Sanza, Chris DeSousa, and Michael D’Orazio were gone and with them a great deal of experience and leadership. Additionally, the off-season was not without its adversity. Young goalie prospect Ian Jenkins died in a tragic car accident just days before he was to attend a Knights mini-camp.

The Knights headed into the regular season with the normal concerns of a young team – several players at NHL camps, a dearth of goalie depth and multiple rumours of trades and signings. However, the additions the Hunters did make between last year’s playoffs and this season have come together to make them the cream of the CHL crop for most of the regular season.  Aside from a couple of weeks while much of their core was away at various major tournaments (World Jr’s, Under-17s), the Knights have perched comfortably atop the CHL rankings.

Despite the not unexpected loss of head coach Dale Hunter to the NHL Washington Capitals, the Knights have not stumbled. Mark Hunter took over as bench boss and added Rob Ramage as a defensive coach later on. The mix of veterans and rookies have been consistently able to throw off a loss, even some outright blow-outs, to come right back with a solid game and get back on track.

One reason has been the performance of the youngsters. Prized rookies, Max Domi, Bo Horvat, and first overall import choice Olli Maatta have received measured ice-time and have shown their worth. Domi, with his controversial acquisition from Kingston, arrived with the spotlight shining directly on him and has shown the skill that made him the 8th pick in the 2011 OHL draft. Horvat, picked just one slot later, has shown a nose for the ‘dirty’ areas of the ice and the ability to dig for his goals.

I have to admit I questioned the selection of the Finnish defenceman Maatta over Mikhail Grigorenko, the highly skilled Russian, but again the Hunters showed that they know the composition of their team well. Olli is proving to be a solid defenceman with some offensive instincts.  He was sidelined during the World Junior Championships due to concussion and missed the recent Top Prospects game due to illness, but his presence on the blue line is a definite asset.

The youngsters have matched up well with sophomores Andreas Athanasiou, twins Matt and Ryan Rupert, and veterans Team USA member Jarred Tinordi, Jared Knight, Seth Griffith, Team Canada member Scott Harrington, Vladislav Namestnikov and the Knights’ stalwart, workhorse – goaltender Michael Houser.  Things have been going so well that, instead of being sellers at the recent trade deadline, Mark Hunter swung a pair of separate deals intended to shore up what appeared to be the team’s weaknesses in goalie depth and scoring in order to load up for a run for the Cup.

London often seems to be the place to go for prized talent, and it seems that when the Hunters are looking for a certain player of star caliber, they typically tend to get their man (see the John Tavares/Michael Del Zotto or Adam Dennis trades).  This year was no different.  Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg and Nashville draft pick Austin Watson were highly sought after forwards that both found themselves in Knights uniforms shortly before the deadline. In addition to the two star forwards, D Brett Cook and G Tyson Teichmann were brought in to solidify the defence and depth in goal.

The Hunters are not above a little gamesmanship and after last year’s ouster at the hands of the Attack and with an overage spot to fill, added former Owen Sound Attack star and Colorado Avalanche prospect Joey Hishon, after he was released by the Attack.  I’m pretty sure that no-one expected Hishon to play, let alone report, due to the fact that he has yet to play a game in any league, nor practice at full strength since he received a concussion in last year’s Memorial Cup tournament.  Hishon himself tweeted that he’s an Attacker, not a Knight.

The new Knights were greeted with great anticipation, but their first game at home was a 4-1 loss to the lowly Kingston Frontenacs. Showing their resilience, the Knights bounced back with 2 wins in the remainder of the 3 in 3 weekend games. They have yet to lose two games in a row.

While Maatta and Namestnikov are working their way back to form after injuries and illness, Pittsburgh prospect Scott Harrington has yet to return to the line-up from a shoulder injury suffered earlier in January at the World Junior tournament. Several players have stepped up their games while their mates were out of the line-up and Brett Welychka, Tommy Hughes, Tyler Ferry and Kevin Raine certainly come to mind. With an almost full line-up available, London faced a true powerhouse in the Niagara IceDogs.

The IceDogs didn’t have to load up for a second stab at the Memorial Cup, already having four WJC team members G Mark Visentin, Freddie & Dougie (susp) Hamilton, and Ryan Strome – but decided more is better and acquired  D Jamie Oleksiak from the Saginaw Spirit to round out that total to 5 and also added F Brett Ritchie from the Sarnia Sting.  Tonight’s game was an East vs West matchup of division leaders.  The IceDogs are a much bigger team, and were expected to bring physicality to the match as well as a goaltender on a shutout streak.

London led off with several hits and led on the shot-clock but were stymied by several good stops by Visentin, while Niagara would score first at the tail end of the second penalty of a two-man advantage and added to their lead early in the second period. The Knights would finally put an end to Visentin’s shutout streak on a goal by Greg McKegg for  his 23rd  point in 12 games as a Knight. The period would end in a 2-2 tie after a mucker’s goal by Horvat.

Niagara came out strong to begin the third period and Ritchie popped a long one by Houser to give them the lead, with the Knights not achieving a shot on goal until much later in the period.  Although outshot 10 – 7 in the period and in the game overall, the IceDogs hung on to win despite a last-ditch attempt by London at the buzzer.  The Knights’ inability to capitalize on more than 1 of their 5 powerplay chances was a low note to an exciting game.

Acquiring Watson and McKegg was intended to improve a powerplay that had terrorized the league in years past, and had been largely ineffective in the current season but was improving.  Some of this may be attributed to the time required for players to adapt to a system and each other, but this will be a key component of any playoff run.  And we still don’t know if Teichmann or Jake Patterson will be able to fill Michael Houser’s skates, should he become injured or falter. Many thinky thoughts on this to come, I’m sure.

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