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OHL Playoffs – Game 1: London Knights 5 vs Saginaw Spirit 2

April 7, 2012

The No.5 Saginaw Spirit took on the league champion London Knights at the John Labatt Centre in London, fresh off a 4-2 opening series win against the No. 4 Sarnia Sting. Despite Sting stars Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk returning from injury for the series, Sarnia wasn’t able to keep the Saginaw’s Brandon Saad off the scoresheet and found themselves with an early exit from the playoffs.

With a couple of games with the NHL Chicago Blackhawks under his belt, its hard not to point to Saad as the Spirit’s offensive catalyst. Keeping that in mind, as well as his performance throughout the regular season and the first round of the playoffs; Saad was given plenty of attention by the Knights in their series opener on Friday night. It was a much different style of game from the previous series in which London had swept the feisty Windsor Spitfires.

The first period saw a wide-open Jarred Tinordi open the scoring on a quick shot up top on goaltender Jake Paterson. Max Domi made a cross-ice pass to the trailer, Tinordi, who had a wide open shot at the goal.  Far from being shaken, Paterson made a couple sharp saves prior to the Spirit tying the game just over two minutes later on a powerplay from Eric Locke.  London pressed hard to get the next goal and regain the momentum, but it appeared that Paterson and his posts had found their confidence and were stopping everything from point-blank chances to spin-a-rama attempts.  Matt Rupert would restore the lead on a pass from his brother Ryan to energize the crowd and send the team off with a 2-1 lead at the end of the period.

Where the first period was primarily spent in the Spirit zone, the second period saw a fired-up Saginaw squad absolutely take it to the Knights.  They pressured the Knights in every zone and the clean breakout passes and plays that had seen the Knights seemingly breeze out of their own zone became nonexistent.  Michael Houser was called upon to make some desperation saves as the Spirit kept the Knights penned in their own zone. Despite the pressure, London would increase their lead on one of the few offensive forays of the period.  Greg McKegg would throw one in on the powerplay at the end of the period and it was 3-1 Knights.   As my companion would say, “And suddenly we’ve figured out how to play hockey again.”

When the Knights play with skill and speed, two things can happen. The first thing is that their breakout plays look simple and they easily exit their own zone and they cross the oppositions blue line with speed.  The second thing is that they play around with the puck and try to look for the prettiest play instead of throwing themselves and the puck at the net.  There was evidence of both these occurrences in the third period.

A weak tripping call to Matt Rupert early in the period was lustily booed by the home crowd – not sure how you trip someone when they have their stick around you, but there it was.  The Knights staved off a persistent attack and managed to pot one of their own with a terrific powerplay effort from Austin Watson (who’d been a bit snake-bitten against Windsor) chipping it over Paterson as he was falling in front of the net.  The Spirit would step up the pressure again and halve the score, with Brad Walch zipping one past Houser from the slot.  Given the shots Houser had stopped previously, it wasn’t surprising he was disappointed in missing what looked like a routine save.

Not long after that Paterson made one of the best saves of the night at either end of the rink, on Bo Horvat.  Horvat came down the wing, turned the defender with a deke and came across the net but just failed to beat Paterson glove side. Sheer pleasure to watch, despite the lack of finish.  Good things will come soon for Horvat, I can just feel it.

The Knights would put the game away with the goalie out for Saginaw in the last minute. Austin Watson would score from outside the blueline to bring the final score to 5-2 for the home team.  While the game didn’t have the sizzle of any of the games against the Spitfires, there were some interesting moments, including a great pick behind the net thrown by one of the referees, preventing the charging Knight from getting to the puck in the corner. The look the Knight forward gave him was priceless.

While game one was a see-saw battle that didn’t exactly show on the scoreboard, London will have to bring some more consistency in the next game away from home.  Expect more from Brandon Saad and a little more of the sandpaper that the Chris Tierney, Horvat and Josh Anderson line can generate.  Also looking to lose whatever rust might have still been in the wheels from the long rest the early sweep provided.  I still see the Knights winning in five.

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