Anyone who had to dig out a vehicle from underneath a mountain of snow knows exactly how the London Knights feel.
While the flurries flew outside, the Knights tried in vain to dig themselves out from under a mountain of goals in a disturbing 7-1 defeat at the hands of the red-hot Plymouth Whalers before 8,215 at the John Labatt Centre last night.
London goalie Steve Mason, named to the Canadian junior team's selection camp this week, surrendered seven straight goals -- including three straight to fellow Columbus draft pick Tom Sestito during a four-goal flood in the first period -- as the Knights lost their first regulation contest in nine outings, while the Whalers picked up their fifth straight win in one of the OHL's most difficult buildings for a visitor.
"We have to stop depending on Steve all the time and start playing a better defensive game," London forward Adam Perry said. "He was great and if it wasn't for him, they could've had a lot more. They got the first one early and it just went on from there and we never recovered. We have to be better than that."
There were signs something was out of whack last night.
Josh Beaulieu hurt himself in warmup and had to sit out. Perry, who usually uses his hands for scoring power-play goals, got into his first OHL fight. Even the dependable inflatable castle London's starting lineup skates through during introductions wasn't working properly.
So much had gone right for the Knights this season -- the arrival of Sam Gagner and Pat Kane, the surprisingly solid play on the blue-line -- that no one expected it to come crashing down, especially all at once. It was London's first regulation loss since its previous worst effort -- a 3-0 home loss to Kitchener.
"You have to take the positives -- and there aren't many in this one -- but we have to take what we can and bounce back from this," London captain Robbie Drummond said.
The normally productive London power play didn't do anything in nine opportunities, while the Whalers buried five goals in 12 attempts.
Sestito, who scored twice with the man advantage, had lots of room in front of the London net and let Mason know about it all game.
"We were chatting to each other on the ice -- it was a lot of fun," the big Plymouth forward Sestito said. "We went to NHL rookie camp together in Traverse City (Mich.). (Fellow Whaler) Jared Boll went, too and it's nice because we're all Columbus draft picks. This was a big win for us because we've been doing well lately but we wanted to prove we're a real team, that we can play with anybody."
Plymouth made their point and the Knights will have to prove something to themselves, their fans and the rest of the league-watchers tonight during Teddy Bear Toss Night against Mississauga at the JLC. The fur will really be flying if folks have to wait as long as last night for London's first goal -- a fine individual effort by Matt Clarke, who ruined Plymouth goalie Michal Neuvirth's shutout with 2:21 left in the game.
London first-rounder Philip McRae didn't play because he's battling the flu and former first-rounder Corey Syvret sat out with what's being called an "upper-body injury."
The lone bright spot for London was the return of defenceman Scott Aarssen, who was back in the lineup for the first time since injuring his shoulder Nov. 10 against Oshawa. "It's a great feeling to be back because it sure beats having to sit around and watch the team play," the 18-year-old said. "I got back into contact drills in practice this week and I was cleared by the doctor to play."
The Knights had initially targeted closer to Christmas for Aarssen's return.
"He's too important for us to rush back and we'd never do that if he wasn't cleared," London assistant coach Dave Gagner said. "He gives us a solid player who plays a lot of minutes. Our goals against are down, but we still give up too many scoring chances. Having Steve (Mason) back there helps because he's like a third defenceman and he has saved us from a lot of mistakes this year."
Usually, it works out that way. But not last night.
Whalers 7, Knights 1
Plymouth goals: Steve Ward, Tom Sestito (3), Jared Boll, James Neal, Chris Terry
London goal: Matt Clarke
Next: It's Teddy Bear Toss Night for the Salvation Army tonight as London takes on the Mississauga IceDogs at 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre. The Knights encourage fans to throw stuffed toys on the ice when the home club scores its first goal and help London area children in need.