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The Ruperts Leash the ‘Dogs: OHL Championship Final Game 4

May 9, 2012

Playoff teams don’t like to make changes when they’re winning – unless they’re forced to. Strangely, Mark Hunter decided to swap Andreas Athanasiou for Bo Horvat in the Knights’ return to the Jack Gatecliffe Arena.  Two vastly different players, Athanasiou was expected to add some speed and skill to the line-up, but he’d be on bit of a short leash as his work ethic had been somewhat questionable of late.  The IceDogs were also looking at a change to their line-up, but Mitchell Theoret took the pre-game skate and was good to go after missing most of Game 3 after a check by Austin Watson.

The first period was a typical London road period and though the IceDogs charged out of the gate and got their own fore-check game going, the score favoured the Knights.  In broken record fashion but in opposition to their strategy against the Kitchener Rangers; London was greatly out-shot, only putting 4 shots on Mark Visentin.  An opportunistic Ryan Rupert, Max Domi and Matt Rupert fore-checking effort resulted in Ryan being allowed to zip down the slot and deke Visentin for his 9th of the playoffs, 4th in the ‘Jack’.  Michael Houser made several eye-opening saves to rob Andrew Agozzino, Tom Kuhnhackl and the rest of the IceDogs, who peppered him with 12 shots.

Behind by only 1 goal and dominating the majority of the play, Niagara were determined to continue their strong play in the second period.  In the same way that Mark Hunter felt that the Knights needed to get 30-40 shots on John Gibson of the Kitchener Rangers in order to win, the IceDogs wanted to fire a lot of rubber Houser’s way.  One strategy was to flip the puck in on goal when there wasn’t a good shot available, so they could use their last change to the best advantage to get the desired lineup on in the offensive zone.  This backfired to some extent, due to the Knights prowess in the face-off circle.

On London’s second power-play of the game, a questionable call against Tom Kuhnhackl, the IceDogs aggressively pursued the Knights and forced Houser to make an outstanding save on a tremendous short-handed attempt. As often happens, the Knights raced back up the ice and on a textbook passing play, Vladislav Namestnikov extended the lead to 2 from directly in front of the net. An angry Kuhnhackl exited the box, only to immediately return for a 10 minute misconduct after beaking off to the officials. Not what the IceDogs needed.

The Knights knew that the next penalty was likely coming their way and not surprisingly, a weak interference penalty was called against Seth Griffith.  The IceDogs tried to respond with a power-play goal of their own, but the Knights continued their shot-blocking ways and most shots didn’t make it to Houser.  Dougie Hamilton would get fingered next and although the Knights didn’t score on the power-play, they’d keep the pressure on.  It looked like Hunter’s hunch paid off when Chris Tierney converted a rebound of an exciting Athanasiou rush shortly after the Hamilton penalty expired.

The game turned chippy after the 3rd goal and Hamilton would pick up a roughing penalty.  The atmosphere in the arena had become tense as the hometown crowd protested every Knight hit and offside and several apparent calls went overlooked against both teams. Tierney would have a rough time on one play, Josh Anderson would also be roughed up and Brock Beukeboom would leave with an undisclosed injury. Niagara crashed the net and barreled into the corners with the abandon of a desperate team, but to no avail.  The Knights blocked shots and chipped pucks out, and burst down the ice when the IceDogs pressed indiscriminately. In short, they played the same way they’ve played all playoffs; frustrating their opposition and taking advantage of any mistakes with their opportunistic transition game.

For a team with so much veteran experience and NHL-drafted talent, the Niagara IceDogs were starting to look like they were losing their cool. While they wanted to take the play to the Knights and use their size to their advantage in the confined space of their home rink they were on the verge of crossing the line into reckless play.  Starting with Kuhnhackl’s irresponsible misconduct and ending the period with some rough play and Dougie Hamilton’s two minor penalties, they needed to regain their composure and remember that there was still a lot of time to get back into the game.

Marty Williamson settled his team down in-between periods and the IceDogs played a fierce but relatively clean game to start the third period and were rewarded when Myles Doan had a puck go off his leg and past Houser into the net to put Niagara on the board.  Houser protested that it was kicked in and the play was reviewed but the goal stood and the score was 3-1.  As they had all series, the Knights responded and it was the less-heralded Rupert twin, Matt, that deposited an unassisted goal to quiet the now-raucous crowd less than a minute later.

As the announcers on both sides of the puck (I had to switch to CJBK for the third period) frequently remarked, it was a fact that because the IceDogs were pressing to catch up that they also presented the Knights with opportunities of their own to score.  This played into London’s game plan as they capitalized on their few opportunities and vigorously defended their goal – minimizing the number of wide-open chances that Niagara received.  The crowd had lost its voice and the IceDogs were again looking frustrated. When the Knights did allow a shot, Houser made the stop.

In fact, Houser would lose his mitt at one point and with play continuing, still manage to make a stop.  In the second half of the period, play became, if possible, even more frenzied.  The IceDogs threw everything at the net but as they had all game, were having trouble coordinating their attack, which suffered from offsides and missed passes.  Niagara dominated the third period in terms of puck possession, but aside from the early goal, went un-rewarded. A Tyler Ferry attempt to sweep the puck away from Brett Ritchie resulted in a power-play for the IceDogs that was highlighted by a Griffith blocked shot which left him in some discomfort.

Towards the end of the Ferry penalty, to add to the tension on the London side, Namestnikov was tagged with a ‘closing the hand on the puck’ penalty when he lost his stick and tried to swipe the puck out into the centre zone. It would provide the IceDogs with a two-man advantage for 4 seconds and a face-off in the Knights’ zone.  A scramble ensued, but no goal. Niagara would play the next two minutes in the London zone, but with the penalty, the Knights were able to ice the puck with impunity.

The final score would be 4-1, but a nasty check near the end of the game would leave the Knights with a bad taste in their mouths.  Star rookie Olli Maatta would leave with a possible shoulder / infamous upper body injury after being squashed on a nothing play.  Both players and coaches had some harsh words for their opponents and the officials at the end of the game.  If there wasn’t some hate between the teams before the series started, there certainly was some now.

The Knights return to the John Labatt Centre on Friday with the opportunity to close out the series and punch their ticket to the Memorial Cup.  All the pressure will be on the IceDogs to win three games in a row against a team that hasn’t lost three in a row all season.  If the Knights play the same solid game and don’t get drawn into retaliatory penalties, the Championship can be theirs. And the Rupert twins can officially be named the giant-killers.

Game Stars: Michael Houser (LDN), Ryan Rupert (LDN), Max Domi (LDN)

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