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London Knights gear up for Memorial Cup
By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
The London Knights took a different road to their third straight Memorial Cup.
Regardless of their automatic berth in the tournament as the host team this year, the Knights had the talent and experience to win a third consecutive Ontario Hockey League championship.
London was one of only three OHL teams to both crack the 100-point mark and score over 300 goals in 2013-14.
But the push for a three-peat ended abruptly April 11 when the Guelph Storm eliminated London in Game 5 of the second round of the playoffs.
So when the Knights open the MasterCard Memorial Cup at Budweider Gardens on Friday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it will be London's first real game in over a month. They held an intrasquad game last week.
"We're hungry to play," captain Chris Tierney said. "Everyone wants to get out there and show why we're hosting it and show we can play with all the champions."
A host team coming off an extended break and winning Canada's junior hockey title has precedents. The Ottawa 67's (1999) and Shawinigan Cataractes (2012) were ousted in the second round of their respective playoffs, but won the Cup at home.
The Knights are taking a page out of Shawinigan's playbook on how to avoid rust. London lost the final 2-1 in overtime two years ago to Shawinigan, who used their pre-tournament hiatus to top up their gas tanks.
"We remember when we played Shawinigan two years ago at the Memorial Cup and they came out flying," Tierney said. "We want to come out guns blazing and ready to outskate teams and have the jump in the third period."
Unlike a seven-game playoff series, there isn't time in a Memorial Cup for teams to find their legs or feel out unfamiliar opponents. Each club plays each other once. The team with the best record earns a bye to the May 25 final while the second- and third-place teams square off in the May 23 semifinal. A tiebreaker game is played in the event of two teams tied for third. Guelph has already punched its ticket to the tournament while the WHL champion was to be determined Monday and the QMJHL champion decided Tuesday.
The seven Knights forwards who have played in the two previous Cups intend to impart a sense of urgency on their teammates.
"We tell them all the time how it was, especially the first year when I played in it and how fast and how hard Shawinigan worked against us," centre Bo Horvat says. "We couldn't believe the speed and the conditioning and how they held up against us and the other teams. We saw what it was going to take to win.
"We're doing all the same things Shawinigan did back when they won it, so hopefully it is going to help us."
The Portland Winterhawks eliminated London in the semifinal of last year's Cup in Saskatoon.
"I know that guys are desperate to win, especially after losing two times in a row," Tierney says.
Former NHL players Dale and Mark Hunter have co-owned the Knights since 2000 and are currently the coach and general manager respectively. The Knights were the OHL champions when they hosted and won the 2005 Memorial Cup.
After this year's elimination at the hands of Guelph, the Knights took nine days off the ice before returning to practice. Their two rounds of playoffs were emotional and tumultuous.
Defenceman Brady Austin's father Steve died of cancer in early April. Starting goaltender Anthony Stolarz was suspended eight games for a one-handed slash to the back of Windsor forward Josh Ho-Sang during the first round.
Ho-Sang was slapped with a 15-game suspension two days later for hitting London overage defenceman Zach Bell from behind and breaking Bell's leg. Bell began skating again just last week.
The Knights finished out the playoffs with backup Jake Patterson in net while Stolarz served six games of his suspension. The OHL waived the final two games, which cleared the six-foot-six Stolarz to play in the Memorial Cup.
But Stolarz, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, also missed 17 regular-season games after suffering a severe leg laceration Jan. 17. So 19-year-old Patterson has seen his share of work this year.
The goaltending question and playoff drama aside, the host team of this year's Cup is a strong contender for the title given London's age, experience and talent.
Forwards Max Domi (Phoenix), Horvat (Vancouver) and Mark McCarron (Montreal) are first-round NHL draft picks. San Jose prospect Tierney led London in goals this season with 40. Horvat and winger Josh Anderson, a fourth-round pick of Columbus, both played for Canada's junior team this year.
Nikita Zadorov, a first-round pick of Buffalo, leads a big back end loaded with 19- and 20-year-olds.
"Third time is a charm, I like to think of it," Horvat says. "I think we've got all the tools to do it this year so hopefully we can make it happen."