Knights aim at front-door route this year

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

The framed cartoon near the entrance to the London Knights dressing room underlines the team mantra of a year ago.

"OK, boys," it reads. "Let's use the front door."

It meant, of course, the object is to win their way into the Memorial Cup, not get in on the free pass given the host team each year.

As everyone knows, the Knights didn't just use the door, they blew it off the hinges en route to winning the Cup and gaining a reputation as the finest team in junior hockey history.

Fast forward 11 months. The Knights are two steps up and have the threshold in sight. If they get to the door, they might have to put a shoulder to it this time.

But it could be said getting to, then winning, the national title a year ago had a different degree of difficulty. Guys such as team captain Dylan Hunter and Rob Schremp noted, as their OHL Western Conference final against Guelph Storm looms tomorrow, last season's run posed a different sort of pressure.

"There was the pressure of winning our way in because nobody wanted to hear anybody say we were lucky," Schremp said. "We set all those records and we felt we had to continue winning and get in the right way."

The approach to the post-season this year has been different. Not much was expected of the squad early on. But bolstered by the return of players from the pro camps and the development of younger players, the Knights did not suffer a post-Memorial Cup slide.

Instead, they again topped the OHL and weathered some setbacks en route to winning their two best-of-seven series to date.

"There was a different kind of pressure last year," Dylan Hunter said. "We lost a game to Kitchener and people were saying, 'What's going on?' This year, we're more the underdog compared to last year and it would almost be a sweeter victory if we can do it."

If you were establishing a betting line on Knights games a season ago, the price would have featured long odds against a London defeat virtually from the second week of the season through to the Memorial Cup finale.

They weren't unbeatable, but they were so solid a wager against them was a signal to bring in the chaps with the white coats.

The team is still a good bet most nights this year but not a prohibitive one. They can be beaten. And Guelph is the kind of team that can do it.

It ought to be a tight-checking, entertaining series between two teams with a solid competitive history.

The development of Knights younger players has been important. Vets who were around when the club was below .500 stress to youngsters, who have only had a view from the top, that it isn't always this way -- and to take advantage of it while they have a chance.

"We have some good rookies here and they understand how good a shot we do have," Hunter said.

The rich recent history of the Knights and Guelph shows the Storm knocking London out two years ago in seven games, then the locals getting revenge four-straight last spring.

There is a common denominator that Hunter says is pivotal in this playoff rubber series. Adam Dennis backstopped the Storm to victory two years ago while Ryan MacDonald was exceptional in the London goal. They changed teams in a trade last season.

"I really believe it's going to come down to goaltending," Hunter said. "They're both exceptional goalies. In past series, the defence neutralizes the offence, we still get our chances and it's kind of a battle back and forth between the goalies. It's going to be exciting."

Especially for Schremp, if he can trade the pile of assists he's been restricted to for some trademark goals.


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