OHL Championship Series Preview: London Knights vs. Niagara IceDogs

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The OHL Championship Series is set to get underway on Thursday evening, as the London Knights will host the Niagara IceDogs in game one at Budweiser Gardens. This series is a rematch of the 2012 final, in which the Knights won the J. Ross Robertson Cup in five games. Of course, there are no players remaining on either team from that matchup, but the memory is fresh in the minds of fans on both sides.

The teams split the season series, with the IceDogs winning 3-2 on February 4, and the Knights getting one back a week later with a 3-1 win. The latter game was a thriller, featuring a goal of the year candidate from London’s co-captain (and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect) Mitch Marner (video from Sportsnet):

 

OHL Championship Series Preview: London Knights vs. Niagara IceDogs

Both teams have had incredible runs to the final. The Knights, after struggling in the first round against the Owen Sound Attack, thoroughly dismantled both of their major divisional rivals. They swept both the Kitchener Rangers and Erie Otters, who had been the top team in the entire CHL all year.

The IceDogs have had a similar story, despite being labelled as underdogs in their previous two matchups – after taking down the Ottawa 67s in five games, they then swept both the top-seeded Kingston Frontenacs and the Barrie Colts.

London’s defeat of the Otters in the Western Conference final was shocking. After breathing down Erie’s neck all season for top spot in the OHL, the two teams seemed fated for an all-out war at some point in the playoffs. However, the series was not what was expected; the Knights were utterly dominant, smothering Erie’s big-name stars and making them look nothing like the regular season powerhouse of a month ago.

The Knights finished the regular season with the second best record in the league, going 51-14-2-1 (tying them with Erie on points at 105). They led the league both in goals (319), and goals against (182) – a feat that has not been achieved in the OHL since, ironically, the IceDogs of 2011-12.

Through this playoff run, it has become clear that London is arguably the deepest team in the OHL. Coach Dale Hunter has been forced to shuffle his lines frequently, due to the various injuries and suspensions of players. When forward Max Jones was suspended for 12 games in the first round, sixteen year old Robert Thomas stepped in to contribute. When Daniel Bernhardt fought injury, Kole Sherwood was there. On the blueline, the last name on the lineup sheet has rotated between Aiden Jamieson, Evan Bouchard, and Nicolas Mattinen as both Jamieson and Bouchard dealt with various knocks.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Leading the charge, though, is London’s lethal top line of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak, and Mitch Marner – who on Tuesday was named the 2015-16 recipient of the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding player.

Together, the trio has scored 62% of the Knights goals in the playoffs, with 41 – which is just 9 less than the entire IceDogs team. The line makes up the top three on the playoff scoring leaderboard, led by Marner whose 37 points in 14 games has drawn comparisons to Connor McDavid’s playoff performance a year ago, when his 49 points in 20 games was just 2 shy of the league’s postseason record. If this championship series stretches to six or seven games, Marner’s total will be worth keeping an eye on as his points per game suggests he’ll be within reach of that accolade.

The Knights have proven not to be an overly top-heavy team, though. Beyond the big three, they’ve received crucial secondary scoring from Aaron Berisha, J.J. Piccinich, and fan favourite Cliff Pu. On defence as well, they have players who can generate offence in Victor Mete and Olli Juolevi.

Teams that score as much as London does often have trouble keeping it out of their own net. This Knights team, however, has come to rely on goaltender Tyler Parsons to shut the door, having made some key momentum-crushing saves against both Kitchener and Erie.

The Cinderella story of the Niagara IceDogs’ run to the final is just as compelling as London’s, though. They were subject to criticism all year, failing to live up to the expectations placed on them for the second straight year. The IceDogs finished fourth in the Eastern Conference this season, wedged firmly in the middle of the pack with 77 points.

With a team that looked stacked on paper, led by big names such as New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang and Arizona Coyotes draft pick Brendan Perlini, Niagara’s regular season was relatively underwhelming, as they were extremely inconsistent and couldn’t seem to pull it together as a team.

Once the playoffs started, however, something must have clicked because the IceDogs heated up quickly. They were expected to beat the Ottawa 67’s in the first round, but perhaps not as convincingly as they did. The second-round sweep of the Kingston Frontenacs, though, was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Kingston had been billed for months as potentially the only team in the East that could challenge any of the giants from the West in London, Erie, or Kitchener. Niagara came out hard to start the series, though, and took the first two games in the Fronts’ own arena – recovering in game two from blowing a 5-2 lead in the third period to pull out an overtime win.

Another overtime win in game three effectively sealed the deal, as the IceDogs eliminated a deflated Kingston team in game four without major difficulty, thanks to two first period goals from Perlini.

Against Barrie in the conference final, Niagara was challenged in every game but seemed to maintain an edge, full of confidence after their previous series win. They shut down the Colts’ potent offence, smothering them and continuing to build momentum, blowing through a skilled opposing team like an unstoppable hurricane.

However, Niagara – unlike London – is not a high-flying offensive dynamo. In the regular season, they were thirteenth in the OHL in goals for, although that team’s performance was night-and-day from what they’ve shown in the playoffs. Instead, they have won games on the back of solid defensive efforts, spearheaded by two veteran defencemen in 6’5 tower Ryan Mantha and talented possession player Vince Dunn, who has been one of the best blueliners in the league this postseason.

The scoring has come from everywhere for the IceDogs, as Ho-Sang has typically been the greatest threat but there have been contributions from everywhere. Eighteen different players have scored for them in the playoffs, and players like Pavel Jenys, Stephen Harper, and Jordan Maletta have chipped in when needed to pull out victories.

(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Supporting a strong defensive team is Team USA goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who has turned out to be the smartest trade deadline pickup by any team this year. IceDogs GM/Coach Marty Williamson acquired him and defenceman Josh Wesley – who has also been a key member of this playoff run – in exchange for goalie Brent Moran and five draft picks.

In the playoffs, Nedeljkovic has posted a .918 save percentage, and has kept Niagara in a lot of low-scoring games. His stellar performances have allowed the forward core to take more liberties with the puck, creating more goal-scoring opportunities for a team that has occasionally been starved for offence.

The IceDogs are at a disadvantage, with Brendan Perlini unavailable for the first two games of the final. He was suspended for three games after cross-checking Barrie’s Cameron Lizotte in the face during game three. On the bright side for Niagara, though, as London’s Max Jones also has two games left in his twelve-game suspension from the first round.

Looking at this matchup, the one certainty is that this will be an extremely entertaining OHL Championship series. It looks like it might be London’s title to lose, with how hot their stars have been lately, but Niagara is on a ten-game winning streak and looks like they might have finally pulled it together to be the team they should be.

If Niagara wins this series, it’ll be with sound, antagonizing defence and rock-solid goaltending. They were able to somewhat neutralize Barrie’s offensive stars in Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane, but dealing with Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk is a much more daunting task. Their penalty kill must be excellent; it has been so far in the playoffs, but they have not yet encountered a team that scored 93 power-play goals in the regular season.

Getting under the skin of the Knights’ top players could be effective in drawing penalties, especially if Matthew Tkachuk is frustrated as that tends to throw him off his game. Niagara does have players who are capable of being pests, but it would be dangerous to put too much stock into that gameplan. Erie and London were irritating each other all series, but it was the Otters that paid far more dearly for it.

The problem with playing the London Knights is that even if a team is able to smother their offence and limit them to one or two goals, scoring on them is yet another colossal challenge. They’ve allowed just 2.36 goals against per game in the playoffs, which is even less than Niagara. Goaltender Tyler Parsons has a .924 save percentage.

What the IceDogs have done to get to this point is very admirable, but so is London’s run. It just seems that the Knights are a much deeper team, and better in all areas of the ice. Only one of these two fairytale runs can have a storybook ending, and the choice here seems obvious.

The Erie Otters were the best team in junior hockey this year, and London had no problem with them. Niagara is on a hot streak, but this is where we’ll see if it’s any more than just that. There seems to be only one logical choice for who will win this series, and represent the OHL at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, and people on Twitter agree:

The London Knights will win the OHL Championship and the J. Ross Robertson Cup. It won’t be easy; Niagara still has so much momentum that there’s no doubt they’ll pull off at least a win or two. However, at this point the Knights already look like favourites to win the Memorial Cup.

My Pick: Knights in six.

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