SAULT STE. MARIE -- What the heck is going on here?
Three games ago, the London Knights enjoyed a stranglehold on their series with Sault Ste. Marie and had planned on quickly administering last rites to the Greyhounds.
Now, the OHL's regular-season champions have one skate in the grave and are in peril of committing one of the biggest crash-and-burns in league history.
Lacking killer instinct while the hard-working 'Hounds thrived in survival mode, London fell behind early and couldn't complete a late charge in falling 5-4 before 4,797 yesterday afternoon at the Steelback Centre.
The Sault, a team London had beaten 15 games in a row until last week, has suddenly won three straight to force an improbable Game 7 tonight at the John Labatt Centre. Only two teams in OHL history have blown a 3-0 lead and lost four straight -- the 2005 Soo Greyhounds and 1988 Oshawa Generals.
"I'm not going to find any positives in having to play a Game 7 after we were up 3-0," London forward David Meckler said. "We showed some desperation in the last 10 minutes, but we weren't desperate enough the last three games. We're going to have to come out and work hard all game because we know they're not going to quit."
What's gone wrong for London in these losses? What hasn't?
Steve Mason, the OHL's reigning top puckstopper, isn't making big saves any more and was yanked after allowing five goals in two periods yesterday. Forty-five goal scorer Adam Perry has yet to find the net this series, while Pat Kane and Sam Gagner are making poor decisions.
The defence has been depleted, although Scott Aarssen returned to his usual heavy workload after missing Game 5 with a head injury. Sergei Kostitsyn's powerful and accurate outside shots are getting blocked by shin pads and the crafty Belarusian is becoming visibly frustrated.
"Sergei's Sergei; he's never going to change and we know what he's trying to do and that's draw us into taking penalties," Soo captain Cody Thornton said. "We're not going to fall for that."
After pesky Sault forward David Kuchejda clutched his leg like it was broken and was helped off the ice, Kostitsyn pretended to limp to the London bench. Even though Kuchejda jumped back on the ice a shift later with a lot of spark in his stride, Kostitsyn's theatrics earned him the ire of some Soo fans, who tried to shower him with pop and water as he departed at the end of the game.
"That's just playoffs and the emotion of the two teams out there," Gagner said. "It's become an intense series. We have one more game and we're going to have to work and hope our skill will win it."
After the final buzzer, London head coach Dale Hunter jumped on the ice to usher his team back to the dressing room with the help of the officiating crew.
"They have good fans here, but we were just trying to get everyone into the room without any incidents or fan interaction," Hunter said. "We were able to do that with the help of the referees."
London finally broke a rare 0-for-24 power-play slump when Dale Hunter pulled his goalie with 4:18 left in the third period to give the Knights a six-on-four advantage. Gagner had an easy tap in at the side of the net to provide London's first power-play goal in over three games.
"I like to pull goalies at any time -- that's part of the game and it gave us a better chance to score at that time," Hunter said.
During the 2005 playoffs, in which London went on to win the Memorial Cup, Sault Ste. Marie blew a 3-0 lead and lost a series to the Windsor Spitfires. Soo head coach Craig Hartsburg said that experience holds no bearing on what's happening right now.
"People always talk about that, but it means nothing to this group," he said. "I've been in a lot of series where you're down 3-0 and the feeling is you're probably not going to do it. But this team has shown a lot of character. They believe in what they're doing. When you're down 3-0, you just have to look at the game ahead of you and these kids did this for three games and now there's just one game to go."
It looked promising for London when, at 9:11 into the game, Jordan Foreman opened the scoring with his first tally of the playoffs on a screened point blast that Sault goalie Kyle Gajewski never saw.
But the Sault bounced back by burying both of its first-period goals high on Mason. Then Thornton scored a second-period marker from a terrible angle.
During their comeback, the Greyhounds have been getting unexpected offence from guys who rarely ever score -- defenceman Brad Good and forwards Jacob Lalonde and Chris MacKinnon.
"We have a lot of guys chipping in -- it's been a team effort the whole way," Thornton said.