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Tempest in a Small Barn: Game 2 of the OHL Championship Final

May 6, 2012

Everyone predicted that the Championship series between the London Knights and the Niagara IceDogs would be fairly even, but that the veteran presence would be the key asset for Niagara. After a back and forth game at the John Labatt Centre in which  Dougie Hamilton, Andrew Agozzino, and Mark Visentin drove the IceDog bus to a double-overtime win; it was hard to argue that point. London seemed to be able to counterpunch, but weren’t able to get that final knock-out blow; and were hampered by a pair of O/T penalties. But it was just one game, despite the apparent momentum boost the win would provide.

From the large and friendly JLC, the series switched to tiny Jack Gatecliff Arena for Game 2. A lot of the discussion regarding Game 2 had to do as much with the venue as with the game itself. The ‘Jack’ as the arena is fondly called by Niagara fans, is an older and much smaller rink than the modern JLC and it was enough of a concern that Mark Hunter considered having the Knights practice at a small local arena to get comfortable. That idea was shelved because of the 2OT game, but the thought was there.

The Knights came into Niagara looking for a strong start to offset any momentum the IceDogs may have obtained from the opening win. That idea came to a grinding halt when they took an early penalty and Agozzino immediately cashed.  Not to be outdone, London tried to press back as in the prior game, but aside from a goalpost, they were unable to tie the game up. Not only were they not able to tie the game up, Vladislav Namestnikov would take an ill-advised retaliation penalty and the Knights found themselves down by two. Captain Jarred Tinordi would halve that lead with a blast from the high slot and receive more than just scattered cheers from attendant Knights fans.  The period would end with Niagara leading 2-1.

After being overrun somewhat in the first period and running into penalty trouble, London charged out for the second period.  They forechecked Niagara and kept them bottled up in their own zone.  Ryan Rupert would tie the game under two minutes in on an individual play and barely 3 minutes later, he’d give the Knights their first lead of the series with a quick shot on a pass from Matt.  The IceDogs were on their heels, but pushed back with their 4th line, who found themselves with a great deal more icetime.

London seemed to sit back a bit, but provided with another powerplay after a scrum around Michael Houser; Olli Maatta would score and put the Knights up by two.  Niagara didn’t wilt and in fact, came back with as much pressure as London had seen.  The IceDogs were rewarded with the hat trick goal from Agozzino to bring them back within a single goal.  The Knights might have been ahead on the board but the ‘Dogs were grinding back into the game and had the momentum going into the third. London would have to come out in the third the same way they came out in the second in order to put up that ‘W’ to tie the series.

The third period started like the first – with the IceDogs all over the Knights.  Cycling down low, swapping passes up high, they played keep-away and took potshots at Houser.  Every time Dougie Hamilton had the puck, he was a threat. Agozzino was a fixture in front of the London net and Brett Ritchie was the force behind the net and in the corners.  All the Niagara big guns were brought forward and pushing. But the last line of defence for the Knights, Michael Houser, stood tall.

A questionable penalty to Ryan Rupert would ramp up the tension in the confines of the ‘Jack.’  The name most often repeated by the Niagara announcers in the third period would be that of Austin Watson.  He blocked shots all over the ice, and after the penalty kill, I don’t even know how he managed to get up, let alone skate to the bench. Afterwards, he could be seen talking to the trainer on the bench. The guy with the most playoff experience on the team was, as always, leading by example.

Niagara would battle to the buzzer, but despite throwing everything they had at the Knights and out-shooting London 15-5; they couldn’t get anything past Houser and would waste a stellar performance from their captain. Scott Harrington would take a penalty later in the period  and time again shots were blocked by a sliding forward or stopped by the goalie. Aided by blocked shots, innumerable icings and an unnatural (against the IceDogs) mastery of the face-off dot – London kept their ‘unbeaten when leading after two periods’ record alive.  Were I the Knights however, I wouldn’t count on being able to sit back and relying on their ability to withstand a storm – Niagara has far too many weapons.

The line of Rupert, Rupert and Watson saw a lot of ice throughout the game; providing the offensive pop as well as killing penalties and being on at the end of the game in the goalie-out situation.  The final score was 5-3, and it was fitting that Ryan Rupert was able to lug the puck out and pot the empty net goal for his hat trick. With the series now tied up at 1 game apiece, they’ll return to the JLC for Game 3 on Monday.

I don’t expect to see huge changes from either team, although the Knights will definitely take note of Agozzino’s presence in front of the net on the powerplay – he was far too open on his PP goals. Another key for the Knights will be their forechecking presence versus use of the trap – it worked well in the smaller Niagara arena, but may allow too many opportunities for transition chances in the larger JLC. Nothing new strategy-wise, really, Houser holds the fort while the team rolls 4 lines and takes advantage of turnovers.  Oh, and one more thing. Stay out of the penalty box, boys.

Game Stars: Andrew Agozzino (NIA), Ryan Rupert (LDN), Michael Houser (LDN)

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