Brilliant 2012 for the London Knights

Victor Mario Kaisar
Dec 31st, 2012

The London Knights are forever going to look back at 2012 as a memorable year. The reigning OHL champions suited up for 72 regular season games in addition to 19 OHL playoff games and four Memorial Cup games in Shawinigan. They won 73 of these games (including overtime and shootout victories), losing just 22 in the process, a little over 78 per cent of all their games in the calendar year.

The Knights began the year well when smart trading at the OHL trade deadline brought in Greg McKegg, Brett Cook and Tyson Teichmann from the struggling Erie Otters to bolster the Knights roster. Arguably though, the biggest trade was that of Nashville Predators prospect, and Peterborough Petes captain, Austin Watson. Watson was instrumental in the second half of the 2011-12 season for London and wore the fabled green and gold 48 times in the OHL (including the playoffs) and four more times in the Memorial Cup.

London resumed the second half of the OHL season with a 3-0 victory at the traditional New Year’s showdown away to the Sarnia Sting. The Knights first loss of 2012 came on home ice,  a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the visiting Kingston Frontenacs, which saw a remarkable 49 save performance from former Knights goaltender, Igor Bobkov. The Knights would lose just once more in January, an 8-3 drubbing on home ice to the Kitchener Rangers, and would end the month with 11 wins from 13 games.

February began with a 3-2 defeat to eventual OHL finalists the Niagara IceDogs, the Knights third home loss of the year but would see them win the next four games, shutting out rivals the Windsor Spitfires 5-0 before edging the Plymouth Whalers 8-6 in a thrilling 14 goal game at the erstwhile John Labatt Centre. That was also the game where Knights goalie Michael Houser, earned his 85th regular season victory, breaking Gene Chiarello’s record for most regular season wins as a London Knight. Chiarello was a member of the organization from 1996 until 2000. The Knights would then extract revenge on Igor Bobkov and his Kingston side when they stormed the K-Rock Centre on February 24th, scoring 10 goals, allowing just three. London wrapped up February 2012 with seven wins in 11 games and were still battling it out with the Niagara IceDogs and the Plymouth Whalers for top spot overall in the Ontario Hockey League.

The Knights finished the regular season with an average 5-4 record in March, and were held scoreless for two successive games, one in Kitchener and the other in Windsor. London would end the regular season as champions though, finishing the 2011-12 regular season with a 49-18-0-1 record, (and a 23-10-0-0 record in 2012) good for 99 points overall. The Plymouth Whalers and the Niagara IceDogs both finished with 97 points and almost identical records.

In the playoffs, the Knights were paired against rivals the Windsor Spitfires in the first round and would go on to sweep the series 4-0, scoring 17 goals in that series alone letting in just seven. Michael Houser was the obvious starting goaltender for the Knights, aiming for just their second OHL title in franchise history. Fifth seeded Saginaw was next for the Knights, and the Spirit provided a bit more stern opposition, taking the series to six games. Both teams coincidentally traded 5-2 victories for the first four games of the series, which saw a total of 21 goals scored for London and 18 conceded. Game six of the series was tied after three periods and needed a Vladislav Namestnikov overtime winner with seconds left to play to seal the victory for London. The Spirit won games two and three, before a three game streak by London took them into the final round of the Western Conference playoffs, and a meeting against the Kitchener Rangers.

The Rangers provided no test to the Knights though, and were swept aside in four games. Highly rated Kitchener goaltender John Gibson was uncharacteristically poor in the series allowing in 15 goals. London would score 18 in total and concede 10 in four games, on the way to claiming the Wayne Gretzky Trophy and set up a showdown with the Niagara IceDogs for the title of OHL champions.

Game one of the OHL finals would prove to be an indicator as to how competitive both teams were and it took 29 minutes of overtime to finally decide a winner, Dougie Hamilton potting home the winner to establish a 1-0 series lead for Niagara. The Knights would however bounce back in the series and set up a do or die game for Niagara on May 11 at the John Labatt Centre. In front of a sold out crowd of 9.046 fans, leading point getter Seth Griffith scored what would be the eventual championship winner early in the third period and send the city into rapturous frenzy and jubilation.

The London Knights had won the 2012 J. Ross Robertson Cup, beating the Niagara IceDogs in five games.

A trip to the Memorial Cup followed but the Knights won’t have too many fond memories of the tournament. After securing their berth in the final by virtue of the best round robin record, the Knights allowed the Shawinigan Cataractes to come back and steal the game via an Anton Zlobin overtime winner. London dreams were broken, even more so since the team had so many opportunities to win the game in overtime but failed to capitalize.

The team did however return to London as heroes. The city of London welcomed their heroes with a victory parade celebrating all that the team had achieved that season. In addition to regular season and OHL champions,  the Knights also took home to Holody trophy as Midwest Division champions while on the individual awards side, Michael Houser was the most in demand, taking home the Red Tilson trophy as the league’s outstanding player and the OHL goaltender of the year award, while Austin Watson walked home with the Wayne Gretzky 99 Trophy as OHL Playoff MVP, the second Knight to do so after Corey Perry from the 2004-05 Memorial Cup winning team.

The Knights began the 2012-13 season by beating the Erie Otters 8-2 and would follow that up with another 8-2 victory in Guelph. September and October 2012 was a shaky time for the Knights who had lost a bunch of key players from last season; Michael Houser, Jarred Tinordi, Austin Watson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Colin Martin to name just a few. After 14 games of the season, the Knights were sitting with a very average 8-6 record and were not amongst the CHL top ranked teams. But once November rolled by, that would all change. A 6-3 defeat to Windsor on November 1 was the Knights third straight defeat of the season, something that last year’s team never witnessed.

Alex Broadhurst's overtime goal against Belleville on November 2 ended that losing streak for the Knights. Little did Knights fans know that that was the goal that would send the Knights on a 24 game winning streak, having beaten 16 out of 19 opponents on this streak. Erie, Saginaw and Ottawa remain the only three teams that the Knights haven’t beaten while on their remarkable streak.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Knights though. Of these 24 straight victories for London, five of them have come either in overtime or in a shootout. The streak, which incidentally began after a nervy overtime period against Belleville had some real close shaves: a 19 round shootout in Mississauga which saw Seth Griffith score twice in the shootout, or perhaps the game against Oshawa on November 15th which needed a third period Knights comeback and a Seth Griffith overtime winner.

Or even a tough three games in three days weekend altogether in mid-December. Seth Griffith scored the game winner with four seconds left to play after Daniel Catenacci had tied the game just 20 seconds earlier, to beat Owen Sound 3-2 on December 14. That was followed by a 4-3 shootout victory in Guelph on December 15 and finally it took a nervy Seth Griffith overtime goal to beat a youthful Kingston Frontenacs side 6-5 on December 16.

Or perhaps the biggest threat to the Knights win streak altogether was a depleted blue line. Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta and Nikita Zadorov were all called to their respective country’s selection camps for the 2013 World Juniors. Veteran defenceman Kevin Raine was suspended for three games for misconduct (the December 14-16 weekend) leaving the Knights very thin on the blue line. The Knights pulled along and are now in sight of the 1983-84 Kitchener Rangers record of 25 straight wins in the OHL, which is also a CHL record shared with the 1973 Sorel Epevipers (now the Cape Brenton Screaming Eagles.)

The Knights organization is taking their games one at a time, but the win streak does play at the back of everyone’s mind. Twenty-four straight wins is a remarkable achievement for any sporting franchise and considering that much of this Knights roster will return for next season, it’s a sign of good things to come for the London Knights Hockey Club.

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