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London Knights’ 2012 Playoffs Part 2/3: Road to the Memorial Cup Final

June 4, 2012

This year’s Memorial Cup was hosted by the QMJHL Shawinigan Cataractes and, as the OHL Champions, the Knights had the unfavourable round-robin schedule of 3 games in 4 days. Their opposition consisted of the host Shawinigan Cataractes, the QMJHL champion and defending Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs, and the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings.

Despite placing placing second in the regular season, Shawinigan bowed out of the QMJHL playoffs in only the second round. This gave the Cataractes a month off to prepare for the tournament, a month of rest in which the other teams were fighting through the remainder of their league championships. Fighting off the rust would be one of their biggest challenges.

The Edmonton Oil Kings entered the tournament on a high after winning the WHL crown over the much-touted Portland Winterhawks in a seven game final series.  Riding the strength of MVP Laurent Brossoit, the Oil Kings powered through the WHL playoffs. With the youngest team in the tournament, Brossoit’s goaltending would be key to success for Edmonton.

Finally, there were the highly touted Sea Dogs. Having marched through the tournament last year as well as the QMJHL playoffs this season, the ‘Dogs with their veteran-laden roster, were heavily favoured to repeat as champions.  A team with depth from top to bottom, it was hard to see any reasonable weaknesses.  The title was theirs to lose.

The Knights opened the tournament against Saint John by giving up two short-handed goals, including a stinker to Jonathan Huberdeau. This showed up the one flaw in the London game to date – their impotent power-play. The additions of McKegg and Watson were intended to shore up the Knights’ special teams and although the penalty killing improved, the PP was AWOL during the playoffs.  London came back to win the game, but neither the goaltending nor the Knights’ overall game impressed.

Almost an aside to the final score was the Sea Dogs unusual flare up at the end of the game. A game that opened with Huberdeau elbowing Matt Rupert in the head and escaping severe punishment, ended with Huberdeau taking a double minor for roughing on Ryan Rupert (although the second minor should have been for engaging in the play without his helmet) while the Sea Dogs still had a chance for a tie.  This call sent head coach Gerard Gallant into a ballistic tirade that earned him a bench penalty and subsequently the Knights scored to close the game.  Gallant would then start the parade to the disciplinary committee by complaining vociferously about the officiating at the post-game press conference.

The following night, coming off a poorly played win, London faced the host Cataractes. Losers of their first game to the Oil Kings, Shawinigan charged out of the gate, eager to give their fans a chance to cheer.  Checking relentlessly and taking advantage of their special teams, the Cataractes demolished the Knights at their own game.  London recorded a 6-2 loss, on a powerplay goal, a shorty and an empty net goal when the Knights took Houser out with 3 minutes left in the game. Special teams were indeed the difference in the game, but to the detriment of the Knights.

Not only would London lose the game, however, they lost their cool. Late in the 1st period, both members of a defence pairing would be sent off for separate infractions on the same shift. In a penalty-filled game, it was the Knights that became rattled.  A late game chatterfest at the Knights bench became a source of concern when punches were thrown from the bench. Despite worries that the team might lose players to suspension, they were fortunate to escape with a team fine.

The loss by the Knights and a subsequent win by the Sea Dogs over the Oil Kings set up a unique situation in the standings.  For the first time in Memorial Cup history, each team had an identical record of 1-1. The final games of the round-robin would set up the now required tie-breaker game and the semi-final. The outcomes were myriad and after each of the final three games, scenarios had to be explained to determine which team would play where.

London was the first team to play their 3rd game, against the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Oil Kings were coming off a loss to the Sea Dogs and the Knights were looking to rebound after the loss to the Cataractes. London re-discovered the game that got them to the tournament and Edmonton continued to struggle. The line of Ryan Rupert/Watson/Matt Rupert jumped on a turnover early and slipped a puck through Laurent Brossoit under two minutes in. With the lead, the Knights went into their defensive shell, capitalized a couple times more and gave themselves the opportunity to head straight to the final game with some help in the form of a win by the Saint John Sea Dogs. All they could do was sit and wait.

Next up was the all-QMJHL game.  Saint John faced Shawinigan and came out like the team they were expected to be. Strong in all facets of the game, with Jonathan Huberdeau leading the way, the Sea Dogs squashed the home town heroes. But not before a considerable amount of fisticuffs, chippy play and jawing between the coaching staffs again resulted in team fines.  No love lost indeed.

The win by Saint John meant they moved on directly to the semi-final and that London had a pass directly to the final, playing the minimum number of games. After being shown up by their QMJHL rivals, the Cataractes were forced to play in the tie-breaker game against Edmonton. It also meant that if they were still to raise the Cup at home, they’d have to play and win, four games in five nights.

While London and Saint John sat and waited for their opponents, resting and healing – Shawinigan met Edmonton again, in the tie-breaker. The Cataractes team that set foot on the ice for that game was nothing like the rusty team the Oil Kings had faced on day 1 of the tournament.  The home side blasted through their opponents from the WHL 6-1 and sent the youngest team in the tournament home with only one win. Eric Veilleux’s team had found its game.  Tournament scoring leader Michael Chaput and the rest of Shawinigan’s offensive stars – Kirill Kabanov, captain Michael Bournival and Brendan Gormley put on a show and it was a case of 1 down, 2 to go for the Cataractes.

Although Edmonton would return home with only one win, their young stars, headed by Henrik Yes-I-am-Ulf”s-son Samuellson, showed that they have the skill to make it back next year. They didn’t get on track this year, but he Oil Kings will start the following season with a ton of experience brought from this year’s tournament and are fully expected to challenge for their league championship again.

Back to the team of destiny. For a second time, the Cataractes would face the Sea Dogs, only this time it was an elimination game. Having learned their lesson from the chippy game two nights before, both teams were sure to be more focused on the game at hand.  Saint John looked to put the crowd out of the equation early hitting the scoresheet early but after some early tentative play, Shawinigan would reply with a goal from Bournival.  The once-again raucous crowd would drive them on, especially after they took the lead.  Tomas Jurco would tie the game entering the first intermission, but even then it felt like the Cataractes had the advantage.

In fact, Shawinigan would jump out to a 4-2 lead before another long range, short-handed flip by Huberdeau ended up bouncing by Gabriel Girard and cut the lead going into the second intermission.  Suddenly it appeared that Saint John might have swung the pendulum the other way. Indeed, the crowd would be somewhat silenced when Jurco scored again to tie the game with over half the third period remaining.

But hardworking Yannick Veilleux would put the Cataractes ahead to stay just 4 minutes later.  Despite pulling their goalie and throwing Jurco, Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu (who, coincidentally, was booed every time he touched the puck), Stanislav Galiev, Zack Phillips and everything but the kitchen sink at their opponents, the Sea Dogs were barely able to breach the zone, let alone put anything serious on Girard.  Chaput would score into the empty net and a final zinger of a shot by Pierre-Olivier Morin would set up the fairy-tale ending of the year.  The Cataractes were on to the finals. Just like they said they would be.

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