The OHL Final came to a close Wednesday night in St. Catharines as the London Knights scraped out a 1-0 victory over the Niagara IceDogs. Christian Dvorak’s goal helped the Knights to sweep the series, as they did the last two in this playoff run, and they were awarded the J. Ross Robertson Cup in front of the few fans in Niagara who stayed to watch. The play of this London team has been nothing short of dominant for weeks now, and truly put themselves among the best OHL teams of all time this month. Now, as they prepare for the Memorial Cup in a week in Red Deer, Alberta, the OHL Champion London Knights look like they might just be unstoppable.
Entering the final series, both London and Niagara were on a formidable roll. The Knights had knocked off two heavyweight divisional rivals, in the Kitchener Rangers and Erie Otters, in a pair of sweeps. The IceDogs blew through the heavily favoured Kingston Frontenacs, and then the Barrie Colts, in four games each as well.
As such, nobody expected London to crush Niagara as well. This series was slated to be the final test for both teams; a long, hard-fought series from which would emerge a tired, all-but-broken champion. What happened instead, though, was that Niagara collapsed, falling victim to the unsustainable hockey they relied on.
The Dogs rode a hot goalie in Alex Nedeljkovic, and a lot of momentum, through to the final. When Nedeljkovic regressed to above average, rather than phenomenal, the Knights were all over him. They beat him four times in game one, and shelled him for six goals in game two – before he was yanked from the game.
The final two meetings of the series weren’t blowouts, as the Knights stormed back from a three-goal deficit to win game three in overtime 6-5, and sat on a 1-0 lead for most of game four. Regardless, the IceDogs came into this series with much less left in the tank than London did, and it showed. They were frustrated easily, coaxed into taking stupid penalties. They made glaring defensive errors, which is a death sentence for a team that’s known for being stronger in its own end. And, they could not score – save for game three – when they really needed it.
Niagara actually took an early lead in each of the first three games, going up by a goal in the first two and silencing London’s raucous fans. They couldn’t hold on to any of them.
London’s magical playoff run set a new OHL record, as their thirteenth win in a row on Wednesday beats the 1988 Windsor Spitfires, who finished with 12 consecutive playoff victories. It was smooth sailing through the final three rounds – not that they were easy games, against extremely tough opposition. However, the Knights started the playoffs by generating a lot of doubt.
In round one against the Owen Sound Attack, London struggled on home ice, losing two games in their own building. That six-game series turned into a wakeup call. Co-captain Christian Dvorak felt it was a turning point in their season, as they came out of it looking like a completely different team.
“Everyone just bought in after that [series],” he told Sportsnet’s Rob Faulds, “We haven’t lost a game since.”
It really was everyone, as well. The Knights drew criticism all season for relying on their top line of Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dvorak, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner, and draft-eligible Matthew Tkachuk. Of course, they have been the best line in junior hockey for months, but it was fair to see London as a top-heavy team with defensive issues.
Now, though, they’re clearly one of the deepest teams in the entire Canadian Hockey League. The secondary scoring has started coming in the playoffs, from such contributors as Owen MacDonald, J.J. Piccinich, and new fan favourite Cliff Pu. Defensively, they’ve shored up their game immensely, led by efforts from speedy Victor Mete, as well as OHL veteran Aiden Jamieson and NHL draft prospect Olli Juolevi.
Goaltending has now become one of the team’s greatest assets too, as Tyler Parsons has been absolutely rock-solid. He finished with a .925 playoff save percentage; .934 in the final two series.
Of course, as deep as the team is, this playoff run cannot be discussed without mention of that top line. Mitch Marner’s 44 points in 18 games in just 5 shy of Connor McDavid’s performance a year ago, and if the Knights had played just a few more games there’s no doubt he would’ve been challenging for the OHL playoff record of 51 points. Marner was awarded the 99 Trophy as postseason MVP, just as he won the Red Tilson Trophy a week before as the outstanding player of the regular season.
Tkachuk and Dvorak finished second and third, respectively, in league playoff scoring, with 40 and 35 points. They certainly led the juggernaut offensive effort of this playoff run, particularly on the 28% successful power-play.
London’s ability to get the puck into the offensive zone, and bury every good chance they get, is the mark of a championship calibre team. They have no trouble retrieving it in their own end, and can turn almost any offensive effort into a scoring chance.
The Knights have a week off until the Memorial Cup gets underway on May 19, and at this point they’d have to be considered the favourites. For an OHL team as prestigious as London, they’ve only ever won the trophy once – in 2005. The Knights have appeared in the tournament in four of the last five years, so it seems they’re due to finally win it again.
The only team London knows they’ll see in Red Deer is the host team, the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. Beyond that, their opponents are uncertain as neither of the other two CHL leagues have completed their playoffs. Out west, the Brandon Wheat Kings have a 3-1 series lead on the Seattle Thunderbirds. In Quebec, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies also lead 3-1, against the Shawinigan Cataractes.
Of those teams, the Wheat Kings likely pose the greatest threat to London – a defensive core led by Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Ivan Provorov has been known to shut down high-scoring teams. However, the same was said about Niagara’s blueline, and the world has seen how that played out.
The OHL Champion London Knights will use this week to rest and perfect their strategy, as their greatest challenge yet awaits them in Alberta. Currently, though, it doesn’t look like any team can stop them.