A season for the ages

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

This has been one for the ages, maybe never to be duplicated by any major junior hockey team.

The London Knights completed their improbable regular-season journey last night in Sault Ste. Marie, losing 4-2 to the Greyhounds.

The OHL playoffs begin Thursday against the Guelph Storm, then the Memorial Cup tournament May 21-29 at the John Labatt Centre with the Knights as host team.

Without nine regulars and dressing only 16 skaters last night, two under the maximum, the Knights finished at 59-7-2-0. They fell one short of the Canadian Hockey League record for wins in a season set by the 1980-81 Victoria Cougars, who played a 72-game schedule.

But the Knights can take pride in the fact that in a 68-game schedule they attained the second-most wins in CHL history, plus a slew of other CHL and OHL records.

"We bought the team to build for this year and the Memorial Cup, but to lose seven games all year is unheard of," said Knights coach Dale Hunter, who, along with his brother Mark, the general manager, bought the franchise in May 2000.

The Knights had missed the playoffs the 1999-2000 season, one year after going to the league final, but the Hunters set about building what's become one of the most dominating major junior teams in the history of the game.

"To get over 50 wins two years in a row and to finish first overall two years in a row, it's been a lot of fun," Mark Hunter said last night.

But he admitted they never envisioned anything of this magnitude.

"You always set goals, but to lose seven games all year is an amazing feat," he said.

"For the players to play that hard every night, that team has a lot of character. You respect what they've done and something we use from our playing days is we respect their commitment to consistency.

"That's a hard thing to get on any hockey club. Everybody can have a good one night or two weeks, but six months, it's a good accomplishment."

But Hunter said the players realize the playoffs are a new animal.

"These kids aren't dumb. They know what it's all about. They know it's a different season and they'll have to raise their level often."

Corey Perry, Dylan Hunter, Adam Dennis, Marc Methot, Daniel Girardi, Dan Fritsche, David Bolland and Jeff Whitfield did not play last night after returning to London after Saturday's 4-3 loss in Plymouth.

Bryan Rodney also didn't play, completing his four-game suspension.

The Greyhounds gave Londoner Jeff Carter the night off.

Knights goalie Gerald Coleman, who played last night, completed his record-breaking season with a 1.70 goals-against average to break the 2.06 set by Knights rookie Ryan MacDonald last season.

Despite his CHL-leading numbers, which includes a 32-2-2 record and eight shutouts, Dennis will start the playoffs.

Besides the records, Perry won the scoring title -- only the third Knight in the team's 40-year history -- with 47 goals and 130 points.

The Knights now begin preparation for the playoffs and an old nemesis, the Storm. They upset the regular-season champions in the Western Conference final last year and this season the Storm are one of the seven teams to have beaten the Knights, and that came as recently as Feb. 20.

The Storm have three ex-Knights in their lineup -- MacDonald, defenceman Ryan Pottruff and forward Rick Steadman, all obtained in trades that saw the Knights acquire Dennis and Girardi.

The media spotlight now returns to the Knights as they continue their quest for their first OHL championship.

The team has come under incredible attention and that will intensify again.

Perry and captain Danny Syvret got an extra dose playing for Canada at the world junior championship.

"There's been so much (media) here and so many guys who have been requested to do so many interviews, it's almost ridiculous," Perry said.

GAME GLANCE

Greyhounds 4, Knights 2

Sault Ste. Marie goals: Tyler Aitcheson, Blair Jarrett, Brody Todd, Kyle Wharton

London goals: Adam Perry, Rob Drummond

Next: The Knights open a best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final against Guelph Thursday at the John Labatt Centre, game time 7 p.m.


Videos

Photos