West loaded with goalies

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Just like a trusty makeup case, good goaltending can cover up any OHL team's unsightly scars, blemishes or ugly features.

It's the top reason hopeful players on the eight Western Conference playoff teams will smile today as they look in the mirror before beginning their playoff beards or dyeing their hair a crazy colour in anticipation of a long postseason run.

From top guns London and Kitchener to underdogs Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie, each team boasts a marvellous masked man.

"You look at the bottom three seeds and they all have solid goaltending," said London assistant coach Jeff Perry, who's in charge of the league's best offence.

"The Sault has (Londoner) Kyle Gajewski, who has played nearly every game for them. Windsor has Anthony Guadagnolo and he's turned their season around. Owen Sound -- at the sixth seed -- has Michael Ouzas, last year's OHL goalie of the year (with Mississauga).

"All of those guys, when they're on, are capable of stealing a couple games in a series by themselves."

Don't forget Saginaw's Francois Thuot, who has been hot at times, or Guelph's Ryan MacDonald, the ex-Knight who has made the Storm one of the league's toughest opponents.

The Plymouth Whalers boast veteran Justin Peters of Blyth and Kitchener puts its trust in 21-year-old Dan Turple.

London isn't lacking either. Adam Dennis's current list of accomplishments allow him to tower over the other seven guys -- last year's Memorial Cup ring, two straight OHL titles, plus the career and single-season wins records.

Dennis has already faced the pressure of junior hockey's biggest stage -- the Memorial Cup final -- and he shut out Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic.

"There's a lot of good goalies across the league this year. There's eight overagers and you have to be pretty good to be brought back as a 20-year-old in net," Knights GM Mark Hunter said. "Adam is a proven goalie. He knows how to win."

This season, London's team resembled more of that Rimouski squad -- a half-dozen offensive stars racking up tons of points -- than last year's Knights powerhouse, whose stout defensive play decimated and frustrated all opponents.

"This year, we don't have the defensive stats we did last year," Dennis said. "With this team, it's become more important to make the timely save because you know we're going to score some goals, but we're also going to give up some chances. You have to do whatever you can to keep the team in it. With the fire power we have, everyone knows we're never out of any game."

As much as London surprised many by finishing at the top of the OHL standings again, it would shock everybody if the Knights matched their tidy 16-2 playoff record from last year's run. Because of the way they distribute ice time unevenly, the Knights know they are at a disadvantage if series drag into six and seven games.

"Rest is always important because you're able to get over some of those lingering bumps and scrapes," Perry said. "Last year, we were able to get some rest after the first two rounds of the playoffs (the Knights swept Guelph and Windsor) and it really helped us."

London knows it will be in a rough spot for the rest of the playoffs if it doesn't dispatch the Sault in five games or less. The last thing the Knights want is repeat travel to the Sault Memorial Gardens for a Game 6 against the hard-working Greyhounds.

"You have to win at home -- that's pretty much junior hockey," Perry said. "You won't find too many teams with records under .500 at home (the OHL's four non-playoff teams and Toronto were the only squad with sub-.500 home records). That's why it was important to win the (regular season) title again. If we do get to a Game 7, we're pretty confident because it's in our arena."

KNIGHTS VS. GREYHOUNDS

Regular season: Oct. 2, Knights 6, Greyhounds 2 at London; Dec. 2, Knights 4, Greyhounds 1 at London; Feb. 18, Knights 2, Greyhounds 1 (SO) at Sault; Jan. 18, Knights 3, Greyhounds 2 at Sault

Record (home): London 27-4-1-2; Soo 17-15-0-2

Record (away): London 22-11-0-1; Soo 12-16-3-3

Goals for: London 304; Soo 201

Goals against: London 211; Soo 213

Power play: London 27.9 per cent (144 goals); Soo 14 per cent (65 goals)

Penalty kill: London 83.9 per cent (83 goals against); Soo 81.3 per cent (83 goals against)

KNIGHTWATCH

London vs. Sault Ste. Marie

Best-of-seven OHL Western

Conference quarter-final

Game 1: Tonight, 7 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre

Game 2: Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. at the JLC


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