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London Knights’ 2012 Playoffs Part 1/3: The Way to Shawinigan

June 4, 2012

Its been a short week since the CHL season ended with the Shawinigan Cataractes dashing the hopes of the London Knights and their fans. A week in which the fans in Shawinigan rejoiced in finally joining the ranks of the Memorial Cup winners and a week in which the hometown fans in London welcomed back their heroes with a water cannon salute at the airport and a parade through downtown. The mayor even changed the alley across from their John Labatt Centre home from Market Lane to London Knights Way.

This wasn’t supposed to be the year the London Knights made their second serious challenge for the Memorial Cup. Like the World Junior Championships, the ‘Mem’ Cup is said to be a tournament that would be won by a team built on veteran depth.  A team consistently icing 7 or 8 under-18’s game after game isn’t supposed to get past their league playoffs.

Tell that to this year’s version of the Knights. It was certainly true of 2005 champion Knights – due to the lockout, they had a half-dozen players that could have been in either of the AHL or NHL and powered through their opposition. The 2012 roster didn’t be power through the tournament, but losing the final in overtime showed that they were to be respected. A bounce their way, and the celebration would have been in London.

I hadn’t seen much of the teams from the Q or the Dub before the tournament, but I thought that London looked pretty good, considering all the talk about them being built for the 2013 season.  Ending the regular season at the top of the OHL and hanging around the top of the CHL standings all year may not have actually counted for anything, but despite their record, the Knights seemed to receive little respect.

For example, most of the coverage entering the OHL playoffs centered on the Niagara IceDogs in the east and the Saginaw Spirit and Plymouth Whalers in the west.  The IceDogs started the season poorly, but came on after the half-way point and acquired some of the best available veteran talent at the trade deadline to bolster their already powerful squad. The Spirit also had a weak start, but after a coaching change and the return of the stellar Brandon Saad, they went into the playoffs riding a wave of momentum. The Whalers challenged the Knights throughout the season and in fact, Mike Vellucci stood pat at the trade deadline because he believed in his roster and their chemistry.

The Knights were succeeding and Mark Hunter revised his estimation of his team and decided that they could afford to make a run for the championship a year early.  He managed to obtain two of the most prized veterans on the market in Austin Watson and Greg McKegg without dissolving his prized young core, ensuring depth going forward.  London proceeded to make their way through the OHL playoffs, playing a solid, defence-first style of hockey.  They blocked shots, pestered and hounded the opposition’s stars and as necessary, relied on the steady goaltending of Michael Houser. Not flashy, like the 2005 team, but effective.

The OHL playoffs would match them against two of their fiercest rivals in Windsor and Kitchener, both of which they would defeat in series’ sweeps. They would come back from deficits in both series against two of the pre-season favourites in Saginaw and Niagara. Their lack of youth was not a detriment, as Hunter rolled all four lines and the defence throughout the playoffs. Depth also played its role in coping with injuries to Jared Knight and McKegg, who missed the entire Kitchener series. The Knights had won the right to compete for the Memorial Cup.

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