Knights making case for defence

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Michael Del Zotto has always been surrounded by great scorers.

In midget, he was captain of a Markham Waxers powerhouse that included Steven Stamkos and Cody Hodgson.

Every game he has played in the OHL, John Tavares has been his teammate.

"I know how lucky I am to play with the guys I have," the London Knights defenceman and New York Rangers first-rounder said. "It's been a real privilege."

Teammate Steve Tarasuk used the same word. Privilege. He played midget for the Toronto Marlies alongside Tavares, Sam Gagner, Akim Aliu and Bryan Cameron.

In the OHL, he's been on the blue-line behind guys like Justin Azevedo and Nazem Kadri. He has witnessed some offensive wizardry along the way.

"Teams always want players from winning organizations," he said.

But both know privilege and offensive prowess aren't always enough to win. Not in the playoffs if it isn't accompanied by character and sacrifice.

Mention how London waltzed into Windsor to win on Sunday and three reasons stick out: Tavares' record-breaking hat trick, Trevor Cann's re-emergence as a money goalie and more sturdy special teams.

Lost in the shuffle is the most amazing feat: the Knights beat the league's best offence while dressing just five defencemen. In seven straight wins, London has only allowed as many as three goals twice.

The Saginaw Spirit are up next tonight in the Knights' regular season home finale.

"We've really been paying attention to the defensive side of things lately," said Tarasuk, who has provided back-end depth with Czech Vladimir Roth. "To go into Windsor with five defencemen like that, you need a real team effort. We have guys coming back (on the back check). Trevor (Cann) has been great for us. Matt Clarke has been up playing forward but he's still chipping in back there on the penalty kill."

Del Zotto can free-wheel with the best. The Rangers didn't pick him to be their next Dan Girardi defensive dandy.

But for once, he no longer has to be the highest-scoring defenceman on his team.

That's John Carlson, who isn't shy about jumping into the offensive fray.

Both log big minutes. Recently, they were paired together. Two NHL first-rounders side-by-side. Most of the time, they're asked to shut down the opposition's top scorers.

"I've been playing with Carl lately and it's been great to work with him," the 18-year-old from Stouffville said. "We've been drawing a lot of the other teams' best lines. The minute I came in this league, the focus has been on improving the defensive side of the ice. We're always looking out for each other and making sure we don't get caught."

In the middle of his season of change, Del Zotto once described the Knights fortunes as a roller coaster. Now, he sees it as a train rolling confidently down the track.

"I've been here two months and we had some adjustments to make," he said, "but to see the way we're playing now, it's the perfect time to do it and hopefully, we can keep this going through the playoffs."

Help is on the way. The Knights added 19-year-old Londoner Brandon Greenside, who they picked up on waivers from Sudbury. He just finished his playoffs in Newmarket.

Del Zotto's adaptation and Kevin Montgomery's return allowed London head coach Dale Hunter to move Carlson up front to form a unique three-defenceman power play.

"We needed a right-handed shot (Carlson, one of four righties in a left-handed-dominated lineup) on the other side to open up some seams," Hunter said.

"When you don't have that element against an aggressive team like Windsor, it puts more pressure on the guy on the half-boards (Tavares). But this way, they have to go from here (one side of the offensive zone) all the way to here (the other side) to defend it."

RYAN.PYETTE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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