London Knights Top Line is Silent against Owen Sound

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Just two games into the 2016 OHL Playoffs, and the London Knights have cause for concern. After being shut out 2-0 by the Owen Sound Attack on Saturday and eking out a 4-1 win on Friday, many are wondering whether there’s a problem with the highest-scoring junior line of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner, who have been kept mostly silent thus far.

So, what’s going on with the London Knights top line?

Right off the bat in game one on Friday, the Knights looked slow. They came into the playoffs as by far the highest-scoring team in the OHL, so it was a break from the status quo for them to be outshot 10-3 in the first period. It took until 10:35 of the second for them to solve Attack goalie Michael McNiven.

They did put up two more goals, plus an empty-netter from Marner, but regardless were not the high-flying offensive team we’ve come to expect. The fact that they’re 0-for-9 on the power-play is worrying on its own.

Christian Dvorak assisted on Max Jones’s goal in game one, but other than that the only points for London’s top line have come from Marner’s empty-netter. On Saturday, they were stifled completely by Owen Sound, managing just seven shots between them (plus several blocks from the Attack defence).

It’s hard to point to what exactly the problem is, though. Generally, all three have been slow, and on different wavelengths. During the regular season, they could typically be counted on for a couple goals every game, particularly on the power-play. Now, though, they don’t look like themselves.

“We’re not playing good enough,” said Marner candidly after Saturday’s loss. “No one is in that room. If we want to go far in these playoffs, everyone’s got to wake up.”

Clearly a frustrated team, London has taken 28 minutes in minor penalties over two games, and Owen Sound has scored on the power-play in both.

Credit must be given to the Attack, who have taken away space and suffocated the best offensive team in the province. Despite being such a young team, they’re playing very solid hockey and have clearly gotten under the Knights’ skin.

However, whatever the problem is with the Knights (particularly Tkachuk, Dvorak and Marner), something has to change before game three in Owen Sound on Monday.

Seeing his team struggling on Saturday, London coach Dale Hunter mixed up his lines, splitting up his golden trio. He also adjusted his breakout strategy, hoping a double swing style with two forwards starting deep would be the key to pushing through Owen Sound’s defence in the neutral zone. None of it worked. Bounces didn’t go London’s way, and the unfamiliar lines played disjointed hockey.

It’s fairly likely the lines – or at least the top unit – will be back to normal to start the next game, although the Knights’ assistant coach Rob Simpson said nothing is decided yet. Simpson said that the team will spend the day off on Sunday watching game footage to dissect where they went wrong, definitely not going the route of a bag skate.

Heading into the rest of the series, the Knights know they have to get their legs back. Disjointed, sloppy play is not what made them the hottest team in the OHL down the stretch, and it is not going to win them anything. The pressure is now mounting on Tkachuk, Dvorak and Marner especially to lead this team.

It may be too early to be seriously concerned, but it’s definitely notable that London has been outshot by the sixth-seeded Owen Sound Attack two nights in a row.

Defensively they’ve been well-rounded, and Tyler Parsons has been fantastic in net. This is a team that has gotten here on their offence, though, it can’t fail them now.

If the London Knights top line doesn’t wake up on the road on Monday, it will spell trouble for a team with Memorial Cup aspirations. Owen Sound may be a more significant challenge than they expected.

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