Sooner or later, the London Knights will have to start beating the Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm to stay on top in the OHL Western Conference.
The Knights will welcome their best two offensive players, Rob Schremp and David Bolland, back at the end of the world junior hockey championship, but the dynamic duo will be returning to a club clinging to the top seed in the West by nothing more than a frayed skate lace after losing three of its past four games.
"More than just beating Kitchener and Guelph, our goal is still to finish first in the conference," said Knights assistant coach Jeff Perry.
"It's so tight this year and when you get to the playoffs, you're always going to want that extra game in a seven-game series at home. Kitchener has been a tough barn to play in for a while."
After a 4-1 loss there Tuesday, London is 0-2 in Kitchener. The Knights are also 0-2 in Guelph and 1-3 overall against the Storm. Last season, London dominated the regular season so thoroughly that playoff opponents had little reason to believe they could beat the Knights four times in a seven-game series.
Though Eastern Conference-leading Peterborough is a serious frontrunner, the past four OHL champions have emerged from the Midwest Division: London (2005), Guelph (2004), Kitchener (2003), Erie (2002).
After a confusing start, Kitchener and its stout defence is roaring back into contention and the Knights will have to start scoring again to augment the miracles goalie Adam Dennis performs nightly. London gets another shot at the Rangers on Sunday at the John Labatt Centre, with both teams expecting to have close to their regular lineups.
"That game on Sunday will be huge because the Knights will have all of their guys back and we'll have (defencemen) Jakub Kindl and Boris Valabik back from the world juniors, too," Rangers forward and St. Thomas native Craig Voakes said Tuesday.
"It's a battle this year in the standings. It's tight and we want to end up in first place where we thought we should've been before Christmas. That's our goal. We dug a hole but we've made up some ground now and these next few games are big."
The Knights will have assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu and defenceman Corey Syvret back from the world under-17 challenge in Regina, where Ontario finished fifth.
"We feel we have the scoring punch," Perry said of repeating as OHL champions.
"We're going for it and we want to ice the best lineup we can to take another run at it. I'm sure Dale (Hunter), Jacques and I will sit down soon and discuss if we need anything else. But it's in Mark (Hunter's) hands as the GM. There's no egos here. It's all about the betterment of the London Knights."
Most feel London needs another quality defenceman and has a number of veteran, two-way forwards for sale.
London's over-age defenceman Frank Rediker skated again at practice yesterday and said his knee has been feeling better. He hopes to return to the lineup soon but the Knights have to weigh the risks of waiting for him versus potentially playing much of the season with only two 20-year-old over-agers.
Tomorrow: vs. Belleville, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre
Sunday: vs. Kitchener, 2 p.m. at the JLC