In the blink of an eye, the OHL playoff series that was billed as a clash of the titans was over. On Wednesday night, the London Knights completed the sweep of the regular season champion Erie Otters in the OHL Western Conference Final, with a 5-1 win on home ice.
This matchup had been hotly anticipated throughout the regular season, with both Midwest teams vying all year for the league’s top seed – Erie typically having the upper hand. They seemed fated from the outset to meet in the conference final; the ultimate showdown between the OHL’s two deepest teams.
London knows what Erie’s feeling now all too well. The Knights were swept by the Otters in the second round of the playoffs last year, in a series where it was they who struggled to score against the Connor McDavid-led Erie. This time, the narrative has flipped and the Knights won the Wayne Gretzky Trophy in their own building after absolute dominance.
Nobody expected it to end the way it did. The Otters, who are in their third conference final in as many years, were not supposed to be embarrassed like this after leading the CHL power rankings from day one of the season.
Minutes after his team was eliminated, Erie coach Kris Knoblauch found it hard to explain where it had all gone wrong.
“This isn’t where we expected to be finishing up,” he admitted. “We lost to a very good team.”
A very good team is exactly what the Knights were in this series, and what Erie should’ve been. London had a tougher journey to the conference final, too. They were shaken up at home by the Owen Sound Attack, losing two games at home and having to close it out on the road in six games. They faced a tougher opponent in the second round too, against their divisional rivals the Kitchener Rangers, in a series they also swept – in four games that at times seemed more competitive than this series.
The Otters had an easier go, sweeping the Saginaw Spirit in round one, and disposing of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds without much difficulty in round two.
London co-captain and Toronto Maple Leafs top prospect Mitch Marner thought the tougher start helped his team though, putting them in a better mindset for a playoff run.
“Owen Sound played us really hard, and it was kind of a wakeup call,” he said on Tuesday night after game three. “I think a lot of the guys in that room thought it was going to be a walk… I think after that point they realized how hard it’s going to get, and it keeps getting harder and harder. Everyone bought into that Kitchener series.”
Marner was really the story of the series. It was expected to be potentially the final OHL showdown between him and Erie’s Dylan Strome, but in the end it wasn’t much of a contest. His five goals and seven assists added up to more individual points than the entire Otters team had goals in this series. That brings his playoff total up to a staggering 37 points in 14 games. Strome had just three in the series, and none in the final two games.
In shock after game four, Strome struggled to find the words to describe where it went wrong.
“It felt like every time we got a chance, we couldn’t bury it,” he said. “And every time they got a chance they seemed to find the backdoor guy.”
Where did it go wrong for Erie, then? It was no walk in the park for London, but the Otters were still outscored 23-7, and managed just one goal in each of the last three games. They went just 2/9 on the power-play, and 10/18 on the penalty kill. The Knights seemed to get to them mentally, leading them to take 23 minor penalties in the series, and luring one of their key secondary scorers in Nick Betz into lashing out towards the end of game two, leading to a suspension for the rest of the series.
Matthew Tkachuk in particular thrived off of an agitating style of play in this series. When he wasn’t creating scoring chances, he was getting into the heads of both Strome and Erie’s best defenceman, Travis Dermott. Tempers flared throughout the series, and it was London that benefited from the ensuing penalties.
“Dermott and Matthew [Tkachuk] were battling the whole series,” agreed Knights head coach Dale Hunter. “That’s what playoff hockey’s about. That’s why fans come to watch, and see how hard these kids are working to win.”
London gave a clinic on how to win a hockey series in the final two games, clogging the neutral zone and infuriating the Otters’ top offensive threats. Knoblauch said his team expected to spend a lot of time in their own end against a Knights team that scored more goals than anyone else in junior hockey this season.
“We lost to a very good team,” said Knoblauch when all was said and done. He pointed to London’s depth as a major factor in how thoroughly his best players were shut down.
“They feel very comfortable playing anybody against our top line.”
Hunter gave his top line of Marner, Tkachuk, and Christian Dvorak free reign against Erie, getting them on the ice as much as possible in the first period. The three were responsible for 15 goals in total, which would’ve buried the Otters on their own.
“We have real good players, and real good players play lots of minutes,” said Hunter, acknowledging how crucial that line has been in London’s success.
In the end, London won this series because they were better. As Strome put it, “they’re a heck of a team.” Their best players scored, as did the second and third line when necessary. They took far fewer penalties, and killed them better when they did. They dominated a team that should’ve been the toughest challenge they’ve seen. They were superior in every aspect of play, from the scoring, to the defensive effort, to the play of goaltender Tyler Parsons.
At this point, the Knights may be unstoppable. They’re slated to face the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL Final, who have been riding a hot streak for a month but who had a shaky regular season. The sights must be set now on that series, but thoughts of the opportunity that lies beyond it are creeping into the minds of players. The last time they won the OHL Western Conference Final, they lost in the semi-final of the Memorial Cup – a trophy they haven’t won since 2005. It may be premature to call the Knights favourites if they do make it through Niagara, but they’d certainly be heavyweight contenders after this performance.
It’s not a stretch to call them the best junior team in Canada right now.
Audio from Game 4 Post-game Press Conferences:
Erie Otters coach Kris Knoblauch, captain Dylan Strome
London Knights coach Dale Hunter, goaltender Tyler Parsons