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Knights 2 vs Spirit 1 O/T: Houser stands Tall

April 14, 2012

Prior to the second round series between the London Knights and the Saginaw Spirit, much of the talk was about the two goaltenders. Undrafted Michael Houser of the Knights, tied the OHL league record for wins in a single season and draft-eligible Jake Paterson of the Spirit was recently ranked the number 3 North American goaltender by Central Scouting.  Either one of the two keepers were capable of stealing games for their teams.

Each of the first four games finished with identical scores of 5-2 with goaltending a factor in each pair of wins.  London’s victories in games 1 and 4 saw the Knights pepper Paterson with shots, score early and get the most out of their secondary scoring.  The Knights would chase the Spirit star in the pivotal game 4 in Saginaw after 3 goals in under 7 minutes and Houser would be at his brick wall best.  Saginaw’s wins in games 2 and 3 saw London run into penalty trouble and a hot powerplay in game 2 as well as an admittedly below-par game from Houser in game 3. With the exception of game 4, Paterson was keeping his team in every game.

With the series tied at 2 apiece, the teams returned to the John Labatt Centre for game 5.  London knew they would have to be better. Dormant stars Vladislav Namestnikov and Greg McKegg had scored in the previous game, but more was needed from these veterans.  Houser would have to be at his best, because Paterson was sure to come back with his best game. And not the least, the Knights would have to keep the defensive mistakes to a bare minimum and maintain their discipline.  Too often penalties were the biggest contributors to their losses.

After a couple of early chances, Seth Griffith finally hit the goal column in the series, tipping in a Tommy Hughes shot from the point just three minutes into the game.  But despite all the pressure the Knights applied and outstanding chances they made for themselves – Paterson would make that amazing save.  Time and again a London player would be stymied from close in on point-blank shots or shots off the rush, leaving the Knight shaking his head.  If not for his stellar play, the Spirit could have been down 4 0r 5 goals after the first period alone.  Down at the other end, Houser barely had to break a sweat as London outshot Saginaw 16-4.

The Spirit vowed to come out stronger in the second period and on the strength of several more stellar saves by Paterson, started to turn the momentum.  The ever-dangerous Brandon Saad began to pick up some chances along with Michael Fine, Josh Shalla and the agitating Victor Trocheck. Saginaw began to win all the puck battles. Faced with sustained pressure, the Knights had some defensive breakdowns, but were rescued by Houser who came up with some astounding saves of his own.  Neither team would allow a goal in the period.

Strangely enough, although there were a couple of scuffles, they only resulted in coincidental penalties. In fact, there would be only one powerplay awarded (to the Knights) during the entire game.  However, the scuffles did result in some renewed interest in physical play, to the detriment of the Saginaw defence corps. Austin Watson would deliver a check to Steven Strong on the end boards, causing Strong to go to the dressing room, favouring his right shoulder.  He would not return, leaving the Spirit with 5 defencemen for the remainder of the game.

With the Knights ahead by only a single goal, Saginaw pressed for the equalizer and they got it near the 3 minute mark of the third period.  The shots on goal were almost even although the chances appeared to favour the Knights. Both Paterson and Houser were called upon to make game-saving stops and neither backed down – throwing toe and blocker saves around like it was merely practice.

No further goalscoring in the third meant the first overtime game of the series and for the Knights, their first of the 2012 playoffs. Would all the ‘wasted’ chances come back to haunt the Knights or would they be able to finally put another one by the wall at the other end? Between the announcers, Twitter fans, and myself – I believe we’d run out of appropriate superlatives to describe Jake Paterson’s performance early in the second period.

It was apparent when the Knights came out for the extra period, however, that they were not overwhelmed by the opposition’s goaltender.  They threw the puck around and continued to create chances, doing the things they had been taught to do – cycle the puck and find the open man. It was on just such a play that Olli Maatta kept the puck in with a timely pinch down the boards and found Vladislav Namestnikov who, spinning off the defenceman in the corner, took the puck to the net and on the second try, stuffed the winning goal past Paterson’s outstretched pad.

By not allowing Paterson to ‘steal’ the game for his team, the London Knights find themselves on their way back to Saginaw with a chance to close out the series on Saturday night.  His terrific saves may have had the Knights shaking their heads at times, but they continued to work the puck to the net and at least forced him to make those saves.  Not only have they managed to solve the star goalie twice in the last two games, London hopes that the goals by Griffith and Namestnikov indicate their veteran stars have re-discovered their scoring touch.

Saturday will be a great test of wills at both ends of the ice.  Houser will have come off a key win where he out-dueled the opposition and Paterson will be hoping his team can help him out while he continues his amazing play in net.  They have done their part, both playing well enough to have stolen the victory,  but at the end of the day, reducing the number of wide-open, quality chances will increase their team’s chances to win. And that is a job for their teammates to address.

One final note – the three stars of the game were 1) Michael Houser, 2) Vladislav Namestnikov and 3) Jake Paterson.  Despite being a Knights fan and loving our star goalie, no offence House because you made some stellar saves yourself; I really believe that Jake Paterson was the star of this game. I don’t know how many times I asked myself, ‘How did that not go in??!’ or simply went ‘WOW.’  Maybe I’m just so used to House making those sorts of saves its no longer surprising?  Keep playing your game London – its working.

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