Character, confidence and chemistry have carried the London Knights back to the top of the OHL this year.
But London head coach Dale Hunter feels it's conditioning that must drive his team during its four-games-in-five-days swing through eastern Ontario starting tonight in Belleville. To prepare for the bigger rink at the Bulls' Yardmen Arena, the Knights skated for the past two days at the Olympic-sized surface at the Western Fair Sports Centre.
"It's a tough road trip and you want to get off to a good start," Hunter said. "It's a lot of hockey, but it comes down to being in better shape than the other team. You want to be able to outskate teams in the third period."
He's been criticized for playing his star forwards for nearly half of each game, but Hunter's Knights have played shockingly well in third periods lately and enter their final 10 contests on a six-game win streak. The team credits new strength and conditioning coach Jordan Billard.
"She's in with the older guys in the morning and every week she's measuring body fat," Hunter said. "You can tell right away if these guys are eating (fast food). They're young guys and they want to eat that stuff. Everybody does."
Forward David Bolland, who had the energy late in last Friday's game to score a gorgeous, short-handed game-clincher in Sarnia, said the self-discipline begins again the moment the final buzzer sounds.
"In the old days, guys would have a dart (cigarette) and a couple of beers after a game," he said. "Now, you're looking to down a protein shake."
Chock full of vitamins and victories, London has a chance to become the first club to win three straight OHL regular-season titles and needs to finish 8-2 down the stretch to join the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers (1989-1992) as the only Canadian Hockey League teams with three consecutive 50-win seasons.
Though their showing in all four games this week will eventually determine whether or not they earn home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and hold off Kitchener for first in the Western Conference, the Knights know tomorrow night's showdown in Peterborough is one of those tilts that gets circled on the calendar. If the Knights can beat the Petes on their home ice, they know they can win any game at any time against any opponent in the league.
"We'll spend our off-day Saturday together and maybe catch a movie or go bowling," Hunter said. "It's good for team building."
Rookie defenceman Andrew Wilkins, who has played regularly for both the Knights and the London Nationals this season, is expected to remain in London to suit up for the Nats against the St. Marys Lincolns in the Western Junior B Hockey League playoffs. Goaltender Steve Mason, who opened the junior B playoffs with Petrolia, will make the eastern swing with the Knights.
London's Rob Schremp, who is attempting to become the first American-born player to win the OHL scoring title, needs four points to pass the total of 130 posted by Corey Perry last season.
Tonight: at Belleville, 7:15 p.m.
Tomorrow: at Peterborough, 7 p.m.
Friday: at Ottawa, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday: at Kingston, 2 p.m.