When the Windsor Spitfires and London Knights take to the ice tonight, the two points at stake will be secondary to what is really important.
The Knights are 15 points behind the Spitfires in the OHL's Western Conference. Short of a monstrous collapse by either, Windsor will finish first and London second.
Two points mean nothing.
But the respect and belief that comes with those points, especially if you're a Knight, mean everything. They need to start playing better against the Spitfires because they need to gain a measure of respect from a team that's handled them fairly easily.
The Knights need to prove to themselves that they can beat the Spitfires if, and when, the teams meet in the playoffs.
There's little debate that these two teams are the heavyweights in the conference. The Knights have been a little shaky the last couple of weeks and need to find a rhythm that makes them more consistent.
But you won't find a lot of people willing to bet against a London-Windsor conference final, even with just five weeks remaining in the regular season.
Right now, the battle is one-sided. The Spitfires have used smart drafting, intelligent trading and patient player development to build a team dominating the league. No matter what happens this year, this is not a one-shot deal. Windsor will challenge for championships for years to come.
There's a standard refrain in hockey: You always say you respect everyone, even if you've kicked the crap out of them.
The Spitfires have handled the Knights this year, winning all three meetings. The two games in Windsor, 5-1 and 7-4, weren't as close as the scores indicate. That tells you how much the Knights were outplayed.
It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more a team wins, the more confidence it has. When it gets into difficult situations, it can respond because the players believe they can win.
The 2005 Memorial Cup champion Knights were like that. No matter how difficult a situation, that team was able to respond.
If the Knights want any chance to knock off the Spitfires, they must give the team from the Rose City something to think about.
The Knights have struggled since John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto came onto the scene, but that shouldn't be much of a surprise. It's going to take time for everyone to get on the same page.
The Knights will eventually find cohesiveness and understanding. They may even be able to work out some of their other problems that morph games they should win into losses.
One thing they'll never develop is a real belief they can beat the Spitfires, until they actually play like they can. A win would be nice but it's just as important for the Knights to demonstrate they're willing to pay whatever price to stay with Windsor.
So the last three regular-season games in this series will be about establishing the ground rules and expectations for what's to come.
The Knights need to play better defence. That's especially important with the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Scott Timmins, Greg Nemisz and others coming at you.
But what the Knights really need to do is show they can play the kind of game that wins in the playoffs.
So if you were a betting person, you'd better bet that the Knights will play with a little more aggression than in previous games against the Spits.
The Knights have been passive against the most skilled team in the OHL, especially in Windsor. When the Knights push, expect the Spitfires to push back because that's what they do.
The next three games are all about one thing -- being the alpha dog. You must gain the respect of the pack even if you have to use your teeth to do it.
Tonight: vs. Windsor, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre
Tomorrow: at Barrie, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday: at Owen Sound, 2 p.m.
Over-ager Andrew Engelage appeared in the OHL's all-star game this week. Josh Unice played in the Memorial Cup final last May while still a Kitchener Ranger. That's an experienced tandem. Trevor Cann is the man London's banking on, but he lost his last two starts -- both one-goal games. He needs to be a difference-maker.
The Knights are mobile and like to join the offensive rush. As a result, the back end scores more than in recent season but it also gives up some extra breaks the other way. They have two NHL first-rounders in Michael Del Zotto (Rangers) and John Carlson (Capitals), but they are still a little too sloppy in their own end. Windsor has surrendered the least number of goals in the league. The Spits have Ryan Ellis, big Harry Young, former Kitchener captain Ben Shutron and solid Rob Kwiet. It's a strong foundation.
One of these two is going to end up the highest-scoring team in the league. Windsor has led the way in consistency thanks to a relentless attack led by Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Adam Henrique, Dale Mitchell and Scott Timmins. The Knights have the kind of offence that can erupt for goals. Plus they have John Tavares, the most dangerous shooter in the league. But it has been too hit-and-miss so far. Windsor is more reliable in this department.
London has the second best unit in the league (23.1 per cent) behind Logan Couture and the Ottawa 67's. The Knights haven't seen a big boost to 30 per cent expected when Tavares and Del Zotto arrived from Oshawa. The Spitfires headed into last night's game with Owen Sound in fourth spot. It's quarterbacked by defenceman Ellis, whose skills in this kind of situation made him a gold-medal winner with the Canadian world juniors.
Windsor came into the week with the second-best penalty kill in the OHL behind the Erie Otters. The Spits also get a lot of practice since they're one of the most penalized teams in the league. London is seventh at 82.8 per cent. Justin Taylor is the team's top kill-man, but Nazem Kadri and Tavares see time too, which makes the Knights dangerous for a short-handed goal.