Sting on thinnest ice in franchise history

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

While the London Knights enjoy their best handful of OHL seasons in recent memory, the rival Sarnia Sting are struggling through their worst stretch in franchise history.

After qualifying for the postseason in nine consecutive campaigns since the team's debut in 1994, the Sting dropped their 14th straight game Saturday in Saginaw and have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for the second straight year.

That wasn't the kind of record Sarnia expected when co-owner Rob Ciccarelli hired GM Alan Millar and head coach Shawn Camp from Guelph two years ago on the heels of the Storm's unexpected playoff defeat of the Knights, surprising run to the OHL title and a berth in the 2004 Memorial Cup tournament.

Millar and Camp were supposed to be the tonic for Sarnia's usual recipe of strong regular seasons combined with early playoff exits, but at this point, those late shortcomings would almost be welcome over the current losing trend.

"We've worked hard and stayed incredibly upbeat despite what we've been through this year," Camp said on Friday before London's 8-5 win over the Sting at the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre. "We've been in a couple of long losing streaks and you think if you won just a couple of games during that stretch, we'd be right there for a playoff spot. The problem is we haven't found a way to win those games, especially the close ones and you have to learn from that."

The Knights' most recent victory over the Sting was a perfect example of Sarnia's frustrating season. The Sting nearly overcame a series of questionable penalty calls and a 5-1 deficit to cut the lead to 6-5 late in the third period, only to surrender one of the prettiest short-handed goals of the year by London's David Bolland to crack the comeback.

Sarnia played without its top scorer and flashy Atlanta prospect Chad Painchaud, who suffered a torn ligament in his knee on Feb. 7 in Sault Ste. Marie, and first-rounder Mark Katic, the second pick of the 2005 OHL draft behind Oshawa's 15-year-old phenom John Tavares. Katic is supposed to be one of the most talented young blue-liners in the OHL but because of shoulder problems, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the flu, he only faced London once in six meetings this year.

The lone bright side in the continuous string of defeats is the Sting join the Generals as repeat favourites for the top two choices in the OHL draft this summer. With Sarnia in the Western Conference basement and Oshawa at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, it will be a compelling race to see which team loses more games down the stretch and ends up with the No. 1 pick.

"We're in this to win games so we're not even thinking about (the draft)," Camp said. "That's offseason concerns and right now, we're trying to win every time out. It's important to keep going as hard as you can because if you finally get a win or string a couple together, you never know what could happen or what kind of effect that could have for the rest of this year and next year."

Fortunately for Sarnia, the 2006 class of draft prospects is supposed to be one of the deepest and most talented in years and the Sting have stockpiled three second-round picks from various trades.

The team will also likely have a shot at the one of two players widely considered to be the best in this year's pool -- defenceman Michael Del Zotto and forward Steve Stamkos of the Markham Waxers' Ontario Minor Hockey Association minor midget entry.

Regardless of who they select, Sarnia and its fans must hope a large percentage of the players who have endured the tough times this year can rebound to turn the Sting into a playoff-bound entity in a hurry.


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