Aliu becoming Mr. Clutch

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

It was only a matter of time before Akim Aliu became a London Knights hero.

It just took a little longer than expected -- much like yesterday's 4-3 overtime victory over the Saginaw Spirit before 8,900 spectators at the John Labatt Centre.

Aliu scored an exhilarating go-ahead goal on a breakaway with five minutes left in the third period, saw his team blow the lead with two minutes to go, then batted in the winner 1:09 into the seventh extra session London has played in its last eight games.

The fiery 18-year-old forward wasn't about to be denied his big moment.

"I thought the first one would've sealed the deal," Aliu said, "but give Saginaw credit. They were tough in the third. It's always nice to get a big goal like that. You always want that opportunity."

Aliu didn't get the chance to celebrate Friday when he was named first star in a shootout loss to Sarnia. But to do it again yesterday as second star to goalie Steve Mason provided a different feeling.

"When you get a star in a loss, it's nothing special," Aliu said. "I don't know (about being the Knights star right now). . . . I'm just trying to work hard and do my best to help out this team."

Mason, who made 46 saves, called Aliu London's best player the last few games.

"Akim has been playing the way the players and coaches expect from a star in this league," Mason said.

Aliu has seven goals in his last eight games after scoring just once in his first 18 and yesterday's was his second overtime winner in eight days.

"Akim has played 60 minutes for us the past two games," London assistant coach Dave Gagner said. "In Owen Sound (a 5-4 overtime win Saturday) he was over 30 minutes and he was a little under in this one. Some guys' levels drop the more ice time they get. He seems to get better."

Aliu's extra time has come from playing defence on the power play and especially on penalty kills, an assignment he enjoys.

"I played (half a season) on defence with Dave (Gagner) with the (Toronto) Marlies," Aliu said. "We only have five defencemen right now, so I don't mind helping out."

Part of what fuels Aliu is living up to his potential as a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks. Other motivation includes paying back his coaches for their belief in his ability.

"I was having a tough time in my OHL career and Dave helped me out," he said. "The Hunters helped me by bringing me here to London. They took a chance on me."

There would be no gamble if teams didn't shy away from Aliu's perceived personality -- that he is volatile, ready to explode at any time. A couple of weeks ago, things weren't going well for Aliu and he got into a verbal exchange with Gagner during a game.

Since then, he has played like a man possessed.

"We had him when he was 12 and he was no choir boy back then," Gagner said. "He's an emotional kid. He wears his heart on his sleeve. His greatest positive is sometimes his biggest negative, but not everyone is the same. He's still young. He will mature. We all do. It happens at different times for different people.

"He's a strong man and you look at him on the penalty kill. He can overpower people."

London has overpowered Saginaw during the last five seasons. It was the Knights' 19th win in 21 games against the Spirit, who shut out the league-leading Kitchener Rangers on Saturday.

The Spirit played a one-period scrimmage on Friday after their home game against Kingston was postponed when two Frontenacs -- Aliu pal Jonathan Sciacca and Blyth native Anthony Peters -- were struck by a car in Windsor.

"We'll take three out of four points against Kitchener and London," Spirit head coach Todd Watson said. "Kitchener's a helluva team, but London is a very good one, too."

London's Justin Taylor opened the scoring with a minute left in the second period. It was the first goal allowed by Saginaw netminder Ryan Daniels in 139 minutes and 28 seconds.

But Mason was a little bit better, making a season-high 19 saves in the first period.

"You hate to blow a two-goal lead in the third period and it was a tough weekend with all three games going to overtime," Mason said. "But we got through it and get a couple days of rest now."

GAME GLANCE

Knights 4, Spirit 3 (OT)

London goals: Akim Aliu (2), including the winner 1:09 into overtime, Justin Taylor, Adam Perry

Saginaw goals: Nick Crawford (2), Jan Mursak

Next: London faces the Soo Greyhounds on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre


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