Knights prove they're back on top

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

They took the bus to Saginaw on Tuesday with 11 days of rust and a patchwork lineup.

One of the London Knights' top talents -- Akim Aliu -- went home for "personal reasons." One of their best defencemen -- Kevin Montgomery -- was hurt two minutes into the game.

Now the Saginaw Spirit aren't weak. They're one of the better teams in the OHL's Western Conference and their top trio of Jack Combs-Chris Chappell-Jordan Skellett is one of the league's deadliest units.

But the Knights still won. By the third period, the Spirit's big line was broken up.

Rather than stay in some hotel, the Knights chose to return to London, travelling through terrible blowing snow to get there. After a short rest, they were back on the bus to Sarnia.

The red-hot Sting, who had won six of seven, scored in the first minute of the game. They had all kinds of jump early on New Year's Eve.

But London won that one, too. Matt Clarke provided the winner with 26.4 seconds left.

This is a small glimpse at why the Knights are again one of the best teams in the OHL.

They're often surrounded by controversy and distractions. Some issues, they bring on themselves. Others, they have thrust upon them.

But guess what?

They're on track for another 50-win season. They play the Sting again tonight and need to finish a respectable 22-10 the rest of the schedule to hit that 50-win benchmark.

All the while, they separate the on-ice mission from the off-ice rumour mill.

"We don't talk about the possibility of John Tavares coming here or the fact that Akim Aliu is out of the lineup," London assistant coach Pat Curcio said. "That doesn't matter to these guys. We don't use excuses. They're focused on the task in front of them -- that's what we talk about and they're really starting to believe in themselves.

"It isn't easy to play with three, four affiliated players in the lineup every game. But we've managed to keep it going here in difficult circumstances."

Top goalie Trevor Cann got hurt. Backup Michael Zador stepped in and won.

Aliu, Phil Varone, Steve Tarasuk, Garett Hunter and Kevin Montgomery are out. Other guys have ramped up their games.

Nazem Kadri, cut from the Canadian world junior team, has six points in his last two games. Jason Wilson, who waited two years to crack the London lineup, has scored six times in his last six contests.

The key words are preparation and anticipation. Another is evaluation.

"We feel like if we have the guys ready to play with a good game plan, we give them the best chance to win," Curcio said. "We know after each period how many minutes each guy has played and monitor that closely. We don't want anyone to get too tired.

"We were going to go full bore here in practice (yesterday on New Year's Day) but we decided instead to have the guys work on skill things."

Unlike the past five years, the Knights weren't hit hard by international tournaments this season. Only first-rounder Christian Thomas is gone at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

But at a time when the Knights would be expected to pick up a bunch of points against short-handed clubs, injuries have ravaged the roster. Daniel Erlich and Justin Taylor are the only players among the team's top six scorers who haven't missed significant time.

Unless Kadri continues getting three points a game, there likely won't be a 100-point scorer on the Knights. There are six players with at least 10 goals and six with at least 30 points.

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KNIGHTWATCH

Tonight: vs. Sarnia, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre.

Sunday: vs. Ottawa, 2 p.m. at the JLC. 67's captain Logan Couture is back in his hometown and Brian Kilrea returns to London for his final regular season trip as head coach.


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