KITCHENER, Ont.— There was no long motivational monologue or temper tantrum that helped bring the London Knights back from the brink of defeat. For head coach and GM Mark Hunter, there was also a deficit when it came to his words during the second intermission Sunday as his team sat trailing by two goals against the host Kitchener Rangers.
“I just said, ‘Guys, it’s 4-2 and we’re still in this game.’ "
A Herb Brooks Miracle moment it wasn’t, but it worked for the Knights as they rallied to score four goals in the third period to win 6-4 and take a 2-0 series lead in their best-of-seven OHL Western Conference final.
“Everyone in the room knew we could come back all game,” said defenceman Scott Harrington, who scored the game-winner with 50.8 seconds left to seal the comeback. “We didn’t play that bad of a game. We just got into some penalty trouble and made some bad decisions. After the second period it was very positive in the room – we all believed in ourselves and I think that we came out strong in the third period and we got a lot of pucks on net. Everyone had a good feeling, and fortunately we were able to get a couple goals and get the momentum.”
The tide turned completely to favour the Knights in the third when, despite three power-play opportunities, the Rangers failed to solve London goalie Michael Houser, who made 37 saves in the game. And when Knights forward Seth Griffth scored while his team was shorthanded at the 15:55 mark of the third period, most everyone in the building – including the Rangers – could feel what was coming next.
“It was the turning point, that third goal,” said Rangers star defenceman Ryan Murphy. “I thought everyone got a little down (on the bench), but it’s hockey. Our captain Michael Catenacci did a good job of telling everyone to stay up and that it’s not the end of the game because we still had a one-goal lead. But in the end it was little turnovers, and not getting the puck out killed us.”
Murphy scored with one-tenth of a second remaining in the first period to tie the game 1-1, beating Houser with a slap shot from the high slot. The officials went upstairs to review the play, but deemed there was still a fraction of time left before the buzzer went to end the frame. The Rangers’ collapse also wasted a brilliant second-period effort by German forward Tobias Rieder, who managed to score two shorthanded goals 39 seconds apart. During that span, teammate and defenceman Cory Genovese was in the penalty box for cross-checking London forward Josh Anderson early in the second period with the game tied 2-2. Both of Rieder’s goals came on odd-man rushes, with the second the result of Catenacci stripping the puck from Knights forward Max Domi.
“We just stick to our game plan on the penalty kill,” said Rieder. “If they fumble the puck or if there’s a bad pass we go right on it. Sometimes we have the chance to go down the ice and sometimes we don’t.”
This is the second straight game in which Kitchener has allowed a potential victory to get away. In Game 1 of the series, the Rangers held a 2-1 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the third only to have Domi score to force the game into overtime, resulting in an eventual 3-2 loss.
“We talked about keeping the gas down and keeping the forecheck alive,” said coach and GM Steve Spott of the third period in Game 2. “But when you start with a power play you want to try to gain momentum and that was our plan. The Knights had to empty their tank and they did. But I can tell you that there’s not a tactical or technical message that’s to become passive or sit back - that’s not the case at all.
“We became a little bit passive and lackadaisical in the third period, and I think when you do that against the Knights they’re going to smell blood.”
Hunter acknowledged that’s when the Knights became more physical and went in for the kill.
“Our whole outlook on the third period was more aggression. We wanted to make sure we attacked harder on loose pucks and we did that,” said the coach. “It’s like our power play. We looked tentative out there. We have to play stronger and get pucks lower and work the corners.”
It’s been a long time since the London Knights have found success in Kitchener – slightly more than two years to be exact – but they couldn’t have found a better time to break out of their funk. Not that it weighed heavily on Hunter’s mind, as he wasn’t even aware his Knights had been winless at Memorial Auditorium since April, 10, 2010. There are only four Rangers – Tyler Randell, Ben Thomson, Andrew Crescenzi and Murphy – who were around for that 5-3 home loss to the Knights in the second round of that year’s playoffs.
“We’ve got to lead by example,” said Murphy. “For a lot of our team this is their first playoff experience and they haven’t been in situations like this before. We have and we’ve got a good leadership group, so we just have to stay positive.”
Game 3 of the series is Wednesday in London.