Jordan Foreman always knew this year was going to be different.
The hard-working forward sensed playing for the 2005-06 London Knights wouldn't be like his rookie season in 2004-05 when he showed up for a game and Corey Perry wasn't out by the ice in his flip-flops working on his dipsy-doodle before the warm-up.
He knew something was up when he didn't feel the pressure of chasing a 30-year-old unbeaten streak and didn't see the daily hype of national media types proclaiming his team as the "best junior hockey club of all time."
The circus is gone now, much of it back with the unlocked NHL and charting superstar Sidney Crosby, who was shut out by the Knights in the Memorial Cup final victory, an achievement Foreman wears forever in the form of a tattoo on his body.
It's commonplace for players to compare one season to the next and, fair or not, these Knights know they, and every edition after them, will be measured against the glory of that 2004-05 team. There are dominant teams at the junior level every year, but not many of them end up in a showcase at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"There's not as many people paying attention to us this year as last year," Foreman said. "That, you notice right away. Maybe it was our 0-4 start (this season). We were looking for an identity. But we've felt pretty good since we got (goalie) Adam (Dennis), Dylan (Hunter) and Rob (Schremp) back from pro camps. It's made a huge difference."
While observers marvel at the powerful Peterborough Petes and wonder how in Ryan MacDonald's name did the Guelph Storm get so good, London has rocketed back to the top of the OHL's Western Conference. The Knights have, once again, become one of about five legitimate teams capable of winning the league title and moving on to the Memorial Cup tournament in Moncton in May.
Since that 0-4 start that had them staring at a season-long visit to Basementville, London has lost just one game in regulation -- to a disjointed and hungry Windsor team that hadn't beaten the Knights in three years.
It could be argued that has been their only loss of the season with their true team because London also has two shootout defeats, which would've counted as ties last year and aren't looked at with the same critical eye by the coaching staff who sees the breakaway contests as a one-on-one coin flip.
Last year's Knights didn't lose their first game until the 32nd tilt of the season and the few times they did falter, it felt like an aberration.
"Last year, we expected to win every game and it was kind of shocking to us when we didn't win," Foreman said.
"We had the confidence and the talent to feel like we were going to win every time we played," Foreman said. "This year, we know we're going to have to outwork teams to win and that's where it's different from last year. We're getting that confidence back, the feeling we can win every game, but we also know it's not going to be as easy, that we're going to have to battle every time out."
London learned that lesson in its game Saturday in Sarnia when it had to fight from a two-goal deficit with little more than a minute left and pulled out a shocking overtime victory against the Sting.
From a simple look at the statistics, it's easy to see London's strength lies with its forwards. The team employs a five- forward power play that is, by far, the league's best -- and percentage-wise, better than last year's unit -- and has occasionally taken to killing penalties with all forwards, too.
London is the highest-scoring team under new rules in place to promote more scoring chances. Teammates David Bolland and Rob Schremp are going toe-to-toe for the scoring title and they likely will have to hold off Owen Sound's Bobby Ryan.
Newcomer Sergei Kostitsyn leads the league in rookie scoring, although you might want to question if a guy who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens before he got here can still be called a rookie.
There are way more penalties being called this year, making special teams that much more a part of determining the outcome of the games.
Last year, the Knights had the depth to employ four balanced lines and could grind a team to death. This year, there's uncertainty whether third and fourth lines are even necessary to the success of a team in the way the game has evolved.
"You could get by with three, definitely," Foreman said. "But that's not the way the game is played. There's four lines on every team."
Since the first game of the season, most folks figured London GM Mark Hunter would have to go out and acquire a couple of defencemen this year in order to compete for a repeat cup. The Knights have just one veteran on the blue line -- 20-year-old Frank Rediker -- and everyone else is a youngster still looking for consistency at the OHL level.
No one expected any different with the graduation of Danny Syvret, Marc Methot, Dan Girardi and Bryan Rodney, but most would accept the Knights' current total of 91 goals against could be a lot worse.
That it's not is a credit to some quick maturation on the blue line and the play of 20-year-old goalie Adam Dennis, who is making a case for himself as the best goalie in the league this year.
Dennis, who arrived from Guelph in mid-season last year, has stood in the crease for the last two OHL championship clubs and has the attitude to lead the Knights where they need to go.
Last year, he usually only had to contend with 20 shots a game, most from well outside the prime scoring areas. This year, it's not uncommon for him to face 40 shots and see an assortment of breakaways, two-on-zero rushes and three-on-ones in the process.
"He's saved our bacon on more than one occasion," Knights captain Dylan Hunter said recently.
The biggest thing you can say about the Knights is they have a much different look than last year, but have adapted well .
Some have mentioned even Knights trainer Don Brankley appears more subdued. There have been seasons where the animated trainer's visit to an enemy arena was more anticipated than the game itself.
He is still the same competitor. He just holds his tongue more often.