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Ladies and Gentlemen Your 2012 OHL Champion LONDON KNIGHTS!

May 12, 2012

The London Knights returned home with a chance to snuff out the Niagara IceDogs’ Memorial Cup hopes.  Up 3-1 in the series after a huge win on enemy ice, the Knights had to be brimming with confidence.  But throughout the playoffs, it had been their ability to keep to their game plan and not get too high or too low that had brought them success. They entered Game 5 with the same mentality.

On the other side of the coin, the Niagara IceDogs entered Game 5 on their heels. With the exception of Game 4, the IceDogs had had leads in every game, but were only able to win Game 1.  For a team touted to top the league and with numerous veteran stars, they looked fragile.  They had to have a strong in their opponent’s rink to stay in the hunt.

A few changes came about because of injuries on both teams.  Olli Maatta would play after suffering an upper body injury in Game 4, but veteran sniper Jared Knight would sit out. That would allow both Bo Horvat and Andreas Athanasiou to get back on the ice.  For the IceDogs, Brock Beukeboom would be missed on their blue line, while Milan Doudera would dress for his first game of the series.

Both teams seemed happy to just feel each other out in the first period, with Niagara trying to be patient and taking a page out of the Knights’ playbook, waiting for their opportunities versus trying to press to get an advantage.  Aside from a strange bounce from outside the blue line that eluded Mark Visentin only to be waved off on the offside, the first half of the period was fairly dull.  Houser took a delay of game penalty by chucking a rolling puck over the glass, but the Knights killed the penalty. Shortly afterwards, a snakebit Ryan Strome beat Michael Houser on a point-blank shot from in front, but typical of the ‘Dogs luck, the puck dinged off the post.  The period ended with no score.

The second period started with an opportunity for the Rupert line, but Visentin was up to the challenge.  Unfortunately for the Knights, a tight save by Houser resulted in a 4 minute penalty for high-sticking to captain Jarred Tinordi after he got his stick up and bloodied Steven Shipley who was right on the doorstep digging at Houser.  With Tinordi in the box, the Knights’ penalty kill not only kept up their tight-checking style, Austin Watson blocked a shot (no surprise) and sprung himself on a short-handed breakaway. He was unable to score, but despite an IceDog time-out, he and his mates went on to kill the double-minor.

The big penalty kill gave the Knights life. Out-shot in the period due to the penalty, they charged right back and none other than Watson chipped the rebound of a Scott Harrington shot past Visentin. They didn’t keep the momentum very long, however, as Watson hit the scoresheet again – this time by drawing a boarding penalty. But the IceDogs almost immediately negated their advantage with David Pacan tripping Vladislav Namestnikov, who was attempting to exit the zone with the puck.

Pacan would serve his tripping penalty only to be sent right back in on a high-sticking infraction on a play on Maatta. Nothing seemed to be going Niagara’s way and some of their frustration was starting to seep through. After three straight London penalties, they had to know that the next play that was close to an infraction would be called.  This gave the Knights a chance to close out the second period with a late goal, but although they pressed hard, the IceDogs wouldn’t give up another goal.

The Knights started the third period with a very short powerplay only 8 seconds long and hoped to use the ensuing momentum to keep the IceDogs on their heels. They wouldn’t score on the powerplay, but under two minutes in, a wide open Seth Griffith would be the recipient of yet another beautiful Namestnikov pass and he’d pop it past a helpless Visentin.  The Knights had again taken advantage of an IceDog miscue and made them pay.

There was still a great deal of game to play. Only behind by 2, Niagara wasn’t about to give up.  Although they took another penalty, it appeared that London wasn’t too interested in pressing, being content to sit back a little.  That would give the IceDogs a little opening and Tom Kuhnhackl would crash the net and when the puck squirted free, popped it past a prone Houser.  That quieted the JLC somewhat as the IceDogs crawled back within one.

The trap was in evidence and the Knights played everything safe.  The defence chipped out anything that got close, depending on their solid face-off skills and Houser to bail them out.  House would give everyone a scare when he got caught playing the puck behind his net, but as he scrambled back into the net, the Knights collapsed in front of him and Andrew Agozzino misfired into the crowd. Another prime scoring chance went by the wayside for the IceDogs.

The minutes went by slowly and the London crowd watched anxiously as each foray into the Knights’ zone was stymied.  A boring style, perhaps, but similar to their other wins, would it be a successful strategy?  Knights fans on my Twitter feed echoed my sentiments ‘don’t sit back!’ But the well-coached Knights knew their game better than we did, played their positions as they’d been taught and frustrated every IceDog attack.  A few simple forays into the Niagara zone when the opportunity presented itself was the extent of their offensive efforts throughout the remainder of the period.

No matter how hard the IceDogs tried, they found themselves stifled by the defence of the stingy Knights.  London clogged up the neutral zone, lined up along their own blue line and caused the ‘Dogs to go offside or bounce pucks off shinpads and miss passes. Even with Visentin on the bench for an extra attacker, the Knights were exactly where they wanted to be – it was just like killing a penalty. There were Knights sliding to block shots and get in shooting lanes, sprawling to sweep pucks off sticks and out over the line and bodies slamming into the boards to stop the puck going deep. Knights swarmed the puck carrier as well as covering possible recipients – they just didn’t give Niagara any space to move.

With 30 seconds left, it was one of those Knights’ sprawling moves that had Ryan Rupert throw the puck down for a final icing.  Another face off in the defensive zone, another opportunity for the desperate IceDogs and another nervous moment that was delayed several times for a timekeeper check (adding another second to the clock), swapping out the opposing centreman, and linesman delays.  I’m sure there were more fans than I screaming at the fellow to ‘just drop the puck, already!’

Greg McKegg would come up large again, winning yet another key face off.  The IceDogs would manage to regain possession on a botched Maatta clearing attempt, but would again be unable to beat Michael Houser.  With a few ticks of the clock left, the puck was again fired down the ice, but it did not reach the icing line and Niagara had run out of time.  The Knights poured off the bench and smothered each other while the arena erupted while the IceDogs were left stunned at their ousting.

One of the best moments was when Sportsnet showed the Knights’ coaching staff celebrating on the bench. It couldn’t have been sweeter to have the only series of the four that the Knights had won, be closed out on JLC ice, in front of the home crowd.  Of course, the OHL Championship is only the stepping stone to the Memorial Cup, but for some of these players, it might be the last championship they’d participate in and to win it at home made it even more special.

Before commissioner David Branch could award the big trophy, there was one more piece of hardware to award.  If there was any doubt about who should receive the Wayne Gretzky 99 OHL MVP trophy, Austin Watson extinguished it with an outstanding first period. The guy that Windsor Spitfires’ Bob Boughner had called ‘a guy that you win with’ did a little of everything from throwing hits, blocking shots, driving in on a short-handed breakaway, crashing the net to score the opening goal to taking a boarding penalty. Whatever was needed, Watson did and the Knights benefited. Tonight, he was rewarded with both an OHL Championship and the MVP award.

Finally it was time for the big one.  David Branch announced to the raucous JLC crowd that London was the ‘capital of hockey’ before bestowing the J. Ross Robertson Cup on Knights’ captain, Jarred Tinordi. And as Tinner passed the Cup to overage local, Colin Martin, the cheers rained down. Martin had been a healthy scratch throughout the playoffs, but his captain recognized his contributions.  The players, including scratches – Martin, Knight, Kyle Flemington, Brett Welychka and Tyson Teichmann swarmed the Cup for the team photo.  Everybody in, because everyone contributed to winning that Cup.

Congratulations to the London Knights – 2012 OHL Champions! WTG BOYS!

Game Stars: Austin Watson (LDN), Michael Houser (LDN), Brett Cook (LDN)

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