Knights still have reason to be proud

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

Don't tell the London Knights they accomplished more than anyone expected they would accomplish this year.

Don't tell them they had a remarkable season.

Don't tell them they provided a great deal of excitement and entertainment to this city.

Don't tell them that with a little luck around their returning players when they go through the National Hockey League draft, they should be in the hunt for another title next year.

Even though it's all true, it's going to take a while for them to feel the good stuff.

Last night, all they felt was disappointment.

The Ontario Hockey League regular-season champion Knights were eliminated by the Plymouth Whalers last night at the John Labatt Centre. The Whalers ended the best-of-seven Western Conference final with a 4-1 win to take the series in five games.

There were a lot of red eyes in the dressing room. From five-year junior player Todd Perry to rookie Sam Gagner, the disappointment was as drenching as last night's driving rain.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," said Perry. "After five years, it's all gone, my last game. It's good for the young players to see how upset the older guys are. They'll learn that they have to play hard every year because before you know it, it's gone and you can't go back. It's a good lesson for them."

The Knights went quickly in this series, quicker than most people thought they would. And when the Knights have time to look back at what happened, they'll realize that the winner of this series will likely go on to the Memorial Cup. That will only make the loss all the more difficult to take.

But that's how winners think. Nothing is ever good enough.

And last night, despite the loss, the Knights played like winners. They played hard. They played with total commitment. They played like a team that's use to winning.

They ran into a terrific Whaler team, a team that responded with a big effort of their own, who got timely goals and outstanding goaltending, the type of thing the Knights have thrown at other teams all year.

The Knights simply didn't have enough to handle the Whalers.

It's a well-coached, well-prepared team that's built to go through the grind of a long playoff series.

"This is the hardest working team I've seen," said Whalers coach Mike Vellucci.

This was a series where the Knights shortcomings caught up with them. They didn't have great depth, especially on defence. Even by the standards in hockey today, when size isn't as important as it used to be, the Knights were small. Their young, smaller players played a lot of hockey and eventually slowed down a couple of steps and that made a difference.

The Knights coaching staff got just about everything they could out of their players. There wasn't much left to give.

"It's tough to swallow right now," said Gagner. "But we're going to get a chance to look back on it . . . coming into the season, we weren't really expected to do much outside this room. Everyone in here believed we could be successful. Losing this series is tough but at the same time you see how hard everyone worked and how much they sacrificed, it's a great feeling to be playing with a great bunch of guys like this."

Medical tape and ice bags flowed freely in the dressing room during the playoffs.

"Physically, I'm pretty beat up. We're all beaten up," said Gagner. "Everyone in that room sacrificed something for the good of the team. I think that's why we were able to be successful. (The Whalers) are a great team with a great goalie and they have a lot of depth. But everyone worked hard from the puck drop to the final buzzer. You can't be ashamed when you sacrificed and worked as hard as we did this year."

The crowd understood that.

During the last game at the JLC when the Knights left town 3-0 down, the crowd applauded thinking it'd be the last time they saw see the team this year.

When it was over last night, the crowd stood and cheered not only to thank the Knights but in appreciation of their effort and with some anticipation of what is to come.

Next year, the Knights will be older, stronger and more experienced.

They'll be good, maybe good enough so they don't have to feel that disappointment again.


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