May 16, 2013
LONDON KNIGHTS (OHL champion)
Experience is on the Knights' side, history perhaps not so much.
It has been 23 seasons since an Ontario league team went through a seven-game championship series and won the Memorial Cup; the 1990 Oshawa Generals of Eric Lindros fame did not even have to leave the Golden Horseshoe to do so. The Knights are the only returnee in Saskatoon, but also had the tightest turnaround after winning three do-or-done games in four days against the Barrie Colts.
Still, since these are the New York Yankees of the OHL, they can't be written off. The other skate never seems to drop in Dale and Mark Hunter's hockey fiefdom. London was put through the ringer by both the Barrie Colts and Plymouth Whalers in their final two series, where their defence and goaltending was occasionally leaky.
Their season so far, expressed through the majesty of '80s rock anthems
U2, "Desire." The Knights exude will and skill and it's hard to argue with their accomplishments, but like Bono and his bandmates, they have got so big that it's off-putting. Of course you would say that, hipster.
That fierce urgency of now thing — No one can really know what the psychological impact of London being at this Memorial Cup while having a ticket to next year's tourney in its home environment firmly tucked away. The Knights do have the motivation of having lost the 2012 Memorial Cup final in overtime to the Shawinigan Cataractes. Thirteen current players were part of that loss, including captain Scott Harrington, defenceman Tommy Hughes, checker Tyler Ferry and right wing Seth Griffith, who are coming to the end of their runs in junior. London certainly has designs on this being the first of back-to-back Memorial Cup wins, although getting the first will be tough enough.
Up front — It all starts with the two super sophomores, tireless two-way centre Bo Horvat and playmaker Max Domi, the club's leading point-getter in both the regular season and playoffs. Hunter had to shuffle his lines midway through the OHL final after pesky Matt Rupert returned from a long injury layoff for Game 4 vs. Barrie. It paid off as both Domi and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ryan Rupert registering more offensively toward the series' climax. Overall, London has a good mix up front; 18-year-olds such as centre Chris Tierney, complementary scorer Brett Welychka and physical winger Josh Anderson have all carved out distinct niches. Horvat's ability on faceoffs will be critical.
On the blueline — The savvy Harrington gets a lot of publicity for being quietly efficient, and all of it merited. London is fairly skilled on the back end, which includes Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Olli Määttä and hulking 6-foot-5, 230-pound Russian Nikita Zadorov, whose upside might make him a top-10 NHL pick.
Poor puck luck might have factored in slightly, but London's defending was not especially airtight against either Barrie or Plymouth. Not every team can have a 6-foot-7 shutdown defender like the 2012 Knights did with Jarred Tinordi. Zadorov might be that soon, but he's only 17. This London crew, which also includes San Jose Sharks draft pick Justin Sefton and 18-year-old Dakota Mermis, is a little bit more about positioning and puck movement.
In goal — London's netminding picture is by far the murkiest at this Memorial Cup. Eighteen-year-old Jake Patterson rates a chance to start Friday against Saskatoon since he was the goalie of record during the rally from a 3-1 deficit vs. the Barrie Colts. Patterson was held out practice on Thursday, which might indicate he'll start. The netminder had only (small sample size warning) an .886 save percentage in those three starts but managed not to lose, which makes him the 2013 junior hockey answer to Jack Morris. It would not be a shock if the Knights are quick to turn to Philadelphia Flyers second-rounder Anthony Stolarz, who started their first 18 playoff games.
Outlook — Remember, it's London. They likely stack up as the second favourite after Portland in spite of all the nits one can pick. It's like Vernon Wells already having 10 home runs for the Yankees.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to email@example.com.