Regular season title may come at physical price

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

The London Knights and Plymouth Whalers are going to race right to the end to see who wins the Ontario Hockey League regular season championship.

The winner is assured of home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. That includes the Western Conference final. That's if the teams get there.

The Knights lead the Whalers by one point with eight games left, but London has the tougher schedule. Six of the Knights' last eight games are on the road. The Whalers play four at home and four away.

This thing may go down to the final weekend if both teams decide home-ice advantage is vital.

Is it worth it?

Do the teams push right to the end, risking injury and weariness for that extra home game?

"I think we can win it," Knights assistant coach Todd Bidner said.

But that doesn't tell you whether they will push to finish first overall. It would be quite a commitment for the Knights.

There is a general consensus that while the Knights have several enormously talented hockey players, other teams have more depth. The Whalers, for instance, can roll out four lines on a regular basis.

Not so for the Knights. It will take a big effort by players who have already seen a lot of ice time to ensure they have a chance of staying ahead of Plymouth.

And while there are only eight games left, those will leave a physical residue in the first playoff rounds. Having a little gas left in the tank would certainly help get the Knights through a playoff run that isn't going to be easy for any of the teams.

It isn't going to be much of a secret about how the Knights are going to be treated in the playoffs. Every team will look to lay the body on the team's key players on every shift.

It's going to be a grind.

Imagine having to dispose of Owen Sound, Guelph and either Kitchener or Plymouth just to get to the OHL final. Or maybe you have to play Sarnia or Saginaw instead of Owen Sound or Guelph.

Yikes.

So how important is that extra home game? Some years, it would be vital, especially if a team plays differently on the road than they do at home.

But that isn't the case here. The Knights have the best road record in the league -- they're 23-5 away from the John Labatt Centre -- but they're only 20-12 at home.

Taking their foot off the gas pedal is not something the Knights like to do. But they need to assess closely how great the return will be compared to the risk invested.

It's a fine line to walk but it's one that needs walking.

This is a hockey club which is nursing some illness and injury. It isn't a big, physical team. Sam Gagner and Pat Kane, two of their key players, are young and not exactly hulking.

Kane has missed the last two games with a strep throat infection. He's gone home to Buffalo with his parents for a few days while he recovers. The team hopes he'll be ready for the swing through Ottawa, Belleville and Kingston this weekend.

That's three games in two-and-a-half days.

Gagner missed several games with an upper body injury courtesy of a late hit in Erie. He returned against Sault Ste. Marie and Owen Sound.

There is a certain selling point in being able to call yourself the OHL regular season champion.

But most people remember who wound up winning in the playoffs.

MOBITS-The league is reviewing the ejection of London Knights coach Dale Hunter on the weekend. Hunter was ejected late in the Owen Sound game. He was also ejected three weeks ago in a game in Erie against the Otters.

"We are reviewing the ejections," said OHL vice-president Ted Baker. "We've contacted Dale Hunter and he's contacted us but we haven't had a chance to talk yet."

Baker says that any game misconduct handed a coach will be reviewed.


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