Knights hoping for hot streak

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

The puck drops tonight.

For Justin Taylor, it triggers the ticking of the inner clock.

"You realize it's your last year of junior hockey," the 20-year-old London Knights forward said. "Each game, that's one-68th, two, three-68ths of your OHL career coming to an end. You only have that, then you have to keep winning four playoff games each round or it's done. You want to make sure you make the most of every minute out there until it's over."

And write the dream ending.

It's different, though, for the younger guys. To them, that first puck drop is the crack of a starter's pistol.

At this point, they can't even fathom the finish line.

"I've heard the guys talk about the rivalry with the Windsor Spitfires," said London rookie goalie Michael Houser, who comes from a Pittsburgh suburb, "and it sounds like it was intense but I don't really know what it's all about because I wasn't here.

"I'm really excited to be part of it. This is why I came here -- to play in big games like this."

The 17-year-old Houser is expected to get London's start in goal tonight with Michael Hutchinson still at Boston Bruins camp.

"Hutch has been great to me, telling me what the league's like, and all the leaders on our team -- Justin Taylor, Leigh Salters, Steve Tarasuk.

"They've been here for a few years and have helped the younger guys with some encouraging words."

For one moment before puck drop, Houser will think about where's he standing. A goalie's crease is his house on the ice, the space he feels most comfortable.

It's the spot where Adam Dennis won a Memorial Cup four years ago.

The same patch where Steve Mason was shelled as a wide-eyed Knights rookie, only to bounce back on route to becoming one of the NHL's best goaltenders.

"I'll think about that," he said, "but when the puck drops, it's our five guys out there against their five guys and it's time for me to focus."

The OHL journey differs for each of the 20 teams. Once again, the Knights begin with question marks surrounding the return of stars Nazem Kadri and Michael Del Zotto.

They won't be the favourites this year. That bull's-eye belongs to tonight's opponent -- the defending champion Spitfires. But London is among a handful of teams with the potential to knock off the champs.

"Sure, we use losing to them last year as motivation to give us that extra edge," Taylor said. "You want to prove you can beat them. With every team, you want to at least split and then go for more. You don't want them to think you're going to . . . win only one of the six meetings (like last year)."

Knights like Taylor embrace the expectations. He knows this is the start of what everyone believes to be another 50-or-so-win season with 100-plus points and a top-two or three finish in the league.

That's been the norm five of the past six years.

"We talk about it in the dressing room all the time with the young guys," Taylor said. "The Hunters (Mark and Dale) really don't like to lose. When you win, you keep them happy and those are the guys you want to keep happy.

"If you don't . . ."

Then, changes are made.

Head coach Dale Hunter expects another offensively dynamic club with the defencemen joining the rush at the right time.

"We should be able to score," he said, "and we're big enough. We have a tough team. They're going to work hard. They're going to fight for the puck in the corner every time."

Taylor, especially. At this stage and age, coming off an invite to Vancouver Canucks rookie camp, he is expected to be a dominant force in the league.

"I think there's potential for 50 goals," he said. "We have to see how it turns out, 37 was a good year last season, but I think there's more and there's definitely a lot of guys who are good passers here."

The Knights brought in John Tavares last year because they lacked a true sniper. But they still didn't get the big goals in the spring against the Spits.

Now, it's time to find out if things have changed.

"Of course, you look forward to getting started," Dale Hunter said. "Sure, you remember (the playoff loss to Windsor).

"You don't want it to happen again. No one likes to lose.

"It isn't fun. Everyone wants to win."


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