The London Knights and Plymouth Whalers have been eyeing each other for a while now.
After their final meeting in February, the two teams engaged in a virtual, scoreboard-watching stare-down for the OHL regular-season crown. The Whalers blinked first on the schedule's final weekend, falling 1-0 in overtime at Sault Ste. Marie to hand the Knights their fourth consecutive Hamilton Spectator Trophy.
Plymouth never forgot that missed opportunity. Though the hardware stayed in London, the Whalers still figured they had the best roster in the OHL, especially after taking three of four head-to-head contests with the Knights, and rolled through two playoff rounds with eight wins in nine games to set up a best-of-seven meeting between the top two Western Conference seeds starting tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre.
"As a player, you always want to finish first overall," Whalers captain and former Sarnia Sting defenceman Steve Ward said. "But we have a good team and we didn't want to get away from what we were doing. We just wanted to keep playing solid hockey."
London finished just one point up on Plymouth in the overall standings. That razor-thin edge gives the highly-skilled Knights the right in this conference final series to play one more home game, where they've only scored once against a big and powerful Whalers club in two meetings this year.
"Us and Plymouth and even Kitchener battled all year for the league title," London head coach Dale Hunter said. "(The Whalers) are a solid team. They have four good lines, good defence and two good goalies."
The series will be a study in contrasts.
London just survived a wild seven-game series against the Soo, hanging on after blowing a 3-0 lead and responding with their backs against the end boards. Plymouth, which hasn't played since last Friday, dusted Kitchener in five games, a one-sided matchup many thought had the potential to be the best of the playoffs.
Though they lost their last two visits to Sault Ste. Marie, this edition of the Knights boasted the best road record in OHL history. Plymouth hasn't lost a home game since Jan 6 against Saginaw -- a streak of 20 games. Though Compuware Sports Arena has it moments, it won't come close to providing the hostile environment that was the Soo's Steelback Centre.
The noise, the insults, the derogatory signage and the flying beverages opened London's eyes to the puck passion of 'Hounds fans. Nothing the Knights face the rest of this postseason will rival those crowds but the on-ice challenge is another story.
"You always want to be good at home and I think it's been a combination of things that have worked well for us," Whalers GM and head coach Mike Vellucci. "We've also had some bounces go our way with three overtime wins in the playoffs and you need that as you go along."
Vellucci is the reigning OHL coach of the year but he's going up against two-time top dog Dale Hunter and the hockey experience of assistants Dave Gagner and Todd Bidner. The Knights'brass never showed outward panic despite their three-game funk against the Soo and put together a veteran line that combined speed and grit in captain Robbie Drummond, Jordan Foreman and Josh Beaulieu.
The trio was a big reason why London toppled the Greyhounds and overwhelmed them with a four-goal first period. Of all London's pre-game adjustments, that was the coaching staff's masterpiece.
"We weren't expected to score," Drummond said. "We were supposed to check the Soo's top line (consisting of Jiri Tlusty, Cody Thornton and Dustin Jeffrey). The goals were a bonus and once we started scoring, we just kept working hard and looking for opportunities."
If that line remains intact, it's going to look rather diminutive in stature compared to some of the behemoths Plymouth can roll out there. Jared Boll, who belted Drummond with a massive hit to start a line brawl (goalies Adam Dennis and Justin Peters, included) last year, and James Neal are six-foot-three. Tom Sestito, who scored 42 goals this year largely by driving to the net, is six-foot-five.
Besides leading scorer Evan Brophy, the Whalers added big-goal man Daniel Ryder, who helped Peterborough sweep the Knights in last year's OHL final.
Ryan Pyette is a Free Press sports reporter. firstname.lastname@example.org
FIVE KEYS FOR PLYMOUTH
1. Clog the slot. Put those big bodies in front of the London net and Mason will have to be a magician to stop what he can't see.
2. Kill penalties. The Knights power play has been inconsistent but it's still the deadliest in junior hockey.
3. Don't lose cool. Plymouth is aggressive but going over the top with the physical stuff will play right into London's hands.
4. Keep home wins coming. The Whalers haven't lost at home since Jan. 6, 21 games ago.
5. Daniel Ryder. He beat the Knights with the Petes last year and won the OHL playoff MVP award in the process. Can he frustrate them again?
FIVE KEYS FOR LONDON
1. Goalie Steve Mason. When he's great, London wins. When he's not, the Knights don't.
2. Road warriors. London had the best road record in OHL history, but lost their last two games in the Sault, a much more imposing environment than Plymouth.
3. Counter-punch. Plymouth can box London in its own end, but the Knights can win by creating two-on-ones and three-on-twos.
4. Play as a team. When Sergei Kostitsyn, Pat Kane and Sam Gagner try to do it themselves, the Knights rarely prosper.
5. Sacrifice the body. London isn't as big as Plymouth, but smaller frames can still block shots, win one-on-one battles and work hard.