Knights a banner bunch?

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

The London Knights opened their 2005-06 OHL season by raising championship banners to the John Labatt Centre rafters in celebration of one of junior hockey's most dominant teams.

Then they played sloppy hockey in a 10-7 loss to the Saginaw Spirit, the first of four straight ugly losses that had some folks in the JLC seats wondering why they renewed their season tickets.

Tonight, the Knights unveil the 2006-07 version against a highly touted Spirit squad. But first, they will raise more championship banners to mark a most-entertaining OHL regular-season title, capped by a stunning playoff push that ended with a repeat trip to the league final last spring.

Left for dead in September, the Knights roared to the top of the pack on the backs of veteran goalie Adam Dennis, captain Dylan Hunter, 57-goal scorers Rob Schremp and David Bolland, Belarussian gem Sergei Kostitsyn and a supporting cast that believed in the Hunters who brought them here.

"We had guys last year who were winners and they were going to find a way because they knew what it takes to win," said general manager Mark Hunter. "Almost every game, someone would score a big goal to pull out a win in a tight game. We had the best goaltending in the league two years in a row. Adam Dennis wanted to play every game -- and he almost did -- because he wanted to be the guy with the win beside his name."

Those guys are gone now, except for Kostitsyn, who is back from Montreal's camp.

Hunter is said to have put about 60,000 kilometres on his vehicle during the last year trying to restock his team and coaxing star talent to play in London.

The commutes paid off. The Knights gained smooth Pat Kane, signed silky Sam Gagner, added lanky Phil McRae and have a bullish leader with a bullet shot in Yale University transfer David Meckler. The defence is young and suspect, but it was the same situation last year when the Knights won 49 games.

"We brought in some talented people and it's time for them to prove they can get the job done," Hunter said. "We need guys to score big goals. We need Steve Mason, who has the talent, skill and size, to play at a high level. I'm not worried about leadership because that starts with the coaches and ours are second to none. I don't know what our team will become, but we always want to put a skilled team on the ice that plays entertaining hockey.

"We'll look at the first 10 games and then we'll know where we're at and see if we need to do something."

The 18-year-old Mason, a Columbus draftee who was equally impressed with stopping 36 shots in a rookie game against Dallas and riding the elevator with the Blue Jackets' Adam Foote and Pascal Leclaire at the big camp last week, has the biggest leap to make. After being yanked in the opener last year, he watched Dennis for a near-eternity before shining in a couple of important starts down the stretch.

"It's going to take us a few weeks to get our chemistry, but I've been looking forward to this game -- it's hard not to think about it," Mason said. "I worked hard to improve my speed. I worked before practice and during it. (Knights goalie coach) Dave Rook deserves a lot of credit for helping me get better."

One early benefit for the Knights could be the Midwest Division -- the most competitive loop in junior hockey the last five years -- may have lost some of that strong vintage. Owen Sound is being hailed as a world-beater, but Guelph and Kitchener, like London, have lost some heart-and-soul guys.

"I think the East Division (Belleville, Kingston, Peterborough, Oshawa, Ottawa) is going to be better than it has been, but you never really know how it'll turn out," Hunter said. "I like some of the teams in the West like Saginaw and Plymouth."

One thing the Knights don't have is many connections to their 2005 Memorial Cup team. This club will have to create its own winning ways.

With Trevor Kell dealt to Sarnia, Jordan Foreman a few weeks away with a foot injury and Josh Beaulieu still with the Philadelphia Flyers, Londoner Rob Drummond is the lone regular contributing link to the glory days. But the 20-year-old sees more high times right around the corner.

"No one thought much of us last year and we won the league and went back to the final. We're happy to fly under the radar, although we know no one's going to count us out again. We have good, young talent. We just have to find the way to put it all together."

Let the 68-game journey begin.

GAME GUIDE

Knights vs. Spirit

What: OHL regular-season opener

When: Tonight, 7:30, John Labatt Centre


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