It's hard to imagine Max Domi and Bo Horvat, the London Knights' two highly touted forwards for the next NHL draft, have ever been too wide-eyed in their young hockey lives. More time and effort than the guy on the street can likely appreciate has been poured into trying to ensure neither gets frazzled by a moment.
That being said, the two have travelled light years since their first exposure to the OHL's answer to Shane vs. Rick, a Kitchener Rangers-London Knights playoff series in April. It can be a proving ground for a young player who's on track for the next level. Three seasons ago, current Carolina Hurricanes centre Jeff Skinner built his profile by scoring 11 goals and 17 points during a seven-game Rangers win. With both teams buckling down defensively, the conditions aren't optimal for that kind of scoring outburst. Regardless of that, watching Domi be an offensive catalyst and seeing faceoff ace Horvat hone his two-way game are major series storylines.
"It means a lot to be part of such a historical rivalry," says Domi, 18, who is second on the Knights in playoff scoring after counting seven points (3G-4A) during their four-game sweep of the Saginaw Spirit. "It's really a honour to be part of one of these two clubs. London and Kitchener have gone head-to-head for so long, they've had so many guys get through here. Just to be part of a series like that is awesome. I got a little taste of it last year and had a lot of fun with it. They have a lot of history over there, great fans, great hockey town."
Ready to face Gibson
Kitchener's upset chances, as you know, rest on Anaheim Ducks goaltending prospect John Gibson, who was also top goaltender for victorious Team USA at the world junior championship in January. Gibson got comfy in the Guelph Storm's collective cranium during the first round.
London had a touch of that in Game 2 of the Saginaw series. Detroit Red Wings prospect Jake Paterson, who was Canada's third-string 'tender at the WJC, stopped 67 shots against them in a double-overtime game. Horvat scored both regulation-time Knights goals, including the equalizer with 0.3 seconds left in the third period.
I just think we have to get him moving and put lots of pucks on net," says Horvat, who scored three goals and was plus-3 in the first round. "It's always in the back of your mind that he's a good goaltender, but you can't think of that too much or you'll let it get to you. You just have to go in with the mindset you can score."
"He pretty much won the world juniors for the USA team," adds Domi, who scored 39 goals in the regular season. "You have to respect those guys but at the same time you can't let it play in your mind at all. We'll do the same things we did all year and did against Paterson in the first round. They're not going to be that pretty of goals, but you're going to have to get a little bit dirty and go to some places where most people wouldn't want to go."
Likes the pressure
What's notable about the pair is how they have grown into lead roles so quickly. Oftentimes, a 17-year-old might be counted on in a purely offensive role or be shoehorned into a specialty. Horvat, who is celebrating his 18th birthday Friday, is one of London's first options for faceoffs. The OHL doesn't release official faceoff stats, but Knights assistant GM Rob Simpson recently told Rogers Television that Horvat wins 64 per cent of his draws.
"I've always taken pride in my draws," says the 6-foot, 203-pound Rodney, Ont., native, who is a second cousin of likely OHL first overall choice Travis Konecny. "I work in practice a lot with [Knights assistant coac] Dylan [Hunter], so that's helped me a lot. He was a centreman all his life, too. So he teaches me the little things you can work on in the circle.
"To be relied on by the coaching staff so heavily as a 17-year-old, it shows they have a lot of trust in me. I like it. It puts a little more pressure on me. It pushes you even harder throughout the year."
The 5-10, 194-pound Domi's trademark seems to be his capacity to make a skilled play to produce a goal in close quarters around the net, whereas other players are just trying to put a stick on the puck. His combined 94 regular- and post-season points include some from highlight-reel and tic-tac-toe plays, but his work to get to the dirty areas makes him very valuable for coach Dale Hunter.
"I definitely take pride in being in tight around the net," Domi says. "Dale's biggest philosophy is 'you can't be too pretty, especially in playoffs.' He basically says, 'if you go there, you're going to get rewarded. I'll leave it up to you.' I've basically taken it in, taken it into consideration and I've really embraced it."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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