A lot can happen in four years – only to be right back where it was.
That’s the current situation unfolding in the London Knights/Niagara IceDogs 2016 OHL championship series.
Back in 2012, the Knights were league champs – having defeated Niagara with relative ease in five games.
That 2012 Knight’s squad boasted the likes of then-rookie Max Domi, as well as Olli Matta, Seth Griffith and Chris Tierney among others while Michael Houser held the fort between the pipes.
Niagara’s roster had star power of its own with NHLers – Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton along with brother Freddie along with Mark Visentin in goal.
The only thing that was missing for London was their long time head coach Dale Hunter.
At that point Hunter had taken the head coaching position for the NHL’s Washington Capitals – the team he’d spent the majority of his career playing for.
Meanwhile, Hunter’s brother and former Knights General Manager Mark was behind the bench guiding the team to their second J. Ross Robertson Cup in less than a decade.
The following year – Dale was back to win a second straight title and with 3 titles in under 10 years – the dynasty was officially forged.
IceDogs head coach Marty Williamson is all that remains from the 2012 showdown and knowing that bittersweet sting of defeat at the hands of the Knights, would surely love nothing more than a shot at redemption.
So without further ado, here are the five big factors as to why we feel the Knights will ride the golden road to glory:
#1. The Road So Far:
Nothing quite outlines a predictive outcome like noting each team’s recent achievements and not to take anything away from London but what the IceDogs have done in this department is nothing short of spectacular.
Niagara (12-and-1) has only one loss this post season – dating back to a first round defeat to the Ottawa 67s but even more impressive was their ability to sweep the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
Nobody expected the IceDogs to top the Kingston Frontenacs – let alone sweep them and the same could be said for the Barrie Colts.
Despite what Niagara has achieved, London has had to endure some hardships of their own but have ultimately persevered to get where they are.
Off to that shaky start against Owen Sound, the Knights came alive in the second round – sweeping the Kitchener Rangers before doing the same to the Erie Otters and they have not lost since that opening series against the Attack,
Safe to say that not many experts pegged the Knights to sweep the team that had been slightly ahead of them in the standings all season long but these Knights have the look of a team of destiny.
One would think with the way they disposed of the supposed ‘best team in the CHL,’ without barely breaking a sweat – that this championship series is London’s to lose.
#2. STAR POWER:
Toronto Maple Leaf fans can rejoice beyond just the Auston Matthews bonanza.
Mitch Marner is playing out of his mind right now and the Red Tilson Trophy winner for the OHL’s most outstanding player has had a little help from his friends. Marner’s 15 goals and 37 points through 14 games leads the OHL’s scoring list with his two linemates bringing up the year.
Christian Dvorak and Matt Tkachuk have each had outstanding post season success as well and when your top three players are the league’s top three scorers – than something must be working from an offensive perspective.
Limiting that top 3 will be Niagara’s main focus of the series.
While the IceDogs might not boast the same amount of offensive artillery as London, they do have weapons of their own that will have to play a role should they hope to keep up with the Knights on the score sheet.
Josh Ho-Sang has lead the IceDogs in playoff scoring as he did in the regular season and is the type of player who can control the flow of the game when the puck is on his stick.
Ho-Sang in particular, along with Stephen Harper, Brendan Perlini and Anthony DiFruscia will all be counted on to provide the offense for Niagara and if these guys don’t have a response to London’s high-powered attack – then this series is over before it has even begun.
#3. Depth and perception:
One of the biggest reasons London is where they are (aside from the top 3) has been the spectacular play of their 2nd and 3rd lines.
The Mac/Yack /J.J line have done all the little things right – limitting the offense from opposing top-line players like Erie’s Dylan Strome or Kitchener’s Ryan MacInnis, getting under the skin of these stars and contributing some offense of their own in the meantime.
Pu is fourth in team scoring – and you can hear his name echo through the Gardens every single time he touches the puck – illustrating the fan favourite he’s become. Berisha picked up right where he left off in the regular season – providing some much needed depth on offense and Thomas has played beyond his years in the absence of Max Jones.
One thing has been clear about London this post season and that is that they are perfectly content with playing any of their lines against the top lines on opposing teams.
Line adaptation was a big factor as to how they made such easy work of both Kitchener and Erie.
#4. Return of Max Jones
Speaking of depth, the Knights will get a big boost in game 3 when power forward Max Jones makes his anticipated return to the lineup.
Jones was suspended in the first round for 12 games after a head shot on Owen Sound’s Justin Brack which knocked the Attack forward unconscious.
Needless to say the Jones suspension had many skeptics on the fence as to how the Knights would fare against tougher teams in deeper rounds.
Too bad for those skeptics – the suspension legitimately made no difference to London who went on to win 9 out of 10 games, while sweeping two of the toughest teams in the West – all sans Jones.
A player as good as Max Jones – you don’t keep out of your lineup forever and despite the roll the team is on without him – his presence should only further elevate the Knight’s chances of winning this series.
After all, how could having a big, bruising, goal scoring power forward hinder progress in any possible way?
It surely doesn’t hurt to have top-line scoring, just as it can’t do any harm having the league’s best goalie.
For Niagara, if there’s one solid factor as to how the IceDogs managed to sneak past some of the best teams out East – it lies between the pipes in Alex Nedeljkovic.
The Niagara keeper has put up the most impressive numbers this post season – a big testament to the Ice Dogs 12 and 1 playoff record.
Through 13 games, the 2014 2nd round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes has posted a .918 save percentage along with a 2.33 GAA – not too shabby for a guy who started the year out in Flint.
However the Knights have made easy work of solid goaltending before (look no further than Devin Williams) and there is no clear indication that Nedeljkovic gives the Ice Dogs the advantage in goal.
Only one goalie has put up better numbers that the Niagara netminder this post season – and that goalie is Tyler Parsons. Parsons lead the OHL regular season in GAA and save percentage and has continued that trend into the playoffs.
Parsons .924 save percentage and 2.27 GAA have been key to giving the Knights the breathing space they’ve needed to work their offensive wizardry against some of the toughest teams in their conference.
With the way Parsons has held the fort all season – you’d almost think it was his draft year and an OHL championship ring would only improve that draft stock.
While the IceDogs face a bit of an uphill challenge – Knights coach Dale Hunter acknowledged Niagara’s hard fought path to the finals in slaying a pair of the Eastern Conference giants and he knows they’ll be a tough team to beat.
“They’re a good team,” said Hunter after London’s sweep of the Erie Otters.
“They beat Barrie which is a strong team, and they beat Kingston which was a strong team so they’re on a roll and it’s going to be a great final series for the fans and everyone who watches.”
Despite that roll, the Knights are rolling themselves and after knocking out Kitchener and making short work of the CHL’s top ranked Erie Otters – it seems almost inconceivable that anyone – let alone the feelgood Niagara IceDogs – has a chance of knocking these Knights off their throne.
With that star power, the depth, a solid unit of defense and a brick wall of goaltending – this is as good of a Knight’s squad that we’ve seen in years.
These London Knights are a team of destiny.
KNIGHTS in 5 games