Spirit give up the ghost

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

SAGINAW, MICH. -- Making the third round of the OHL playoffs is difficult.

Lately, the London Knights have made it look easy. They're heading to the Western Conference final for the fifth time in six years.

They're back in large part because their youngest player expected nothing less. Jared Knight scored three big goals in his second playoff series, including the eventual third-period winner last night as London swept away the Saginaw Spirit with a 5-3 victory before 3,108 last night at Wendler Arena.

"That's the tradition here," the 17-year-old native of nearby Battle Creek, Mich., said. "This team expects to win. I knew that when I got here -- we were expected to get to the third round. That's the way it is.

"On my goal, I didn't do anything other than go to the net hard and Daniel (Erlich) gave me a great pass. There are a lot of very good players here."

There will be a lot of rested Knights when the Western Conference final starts next week against either league champ Windsor or Plymouth. The Whalers tied their series with a home win last night so those two clubs will slug it out at least two more games.

"They'll be going hard," Knight said, "and we'll have some rest, which is awesome. But at this point, it doesn't matter who you play because it's going to be tough."

The red-hot Knights have won eight of nine playoff contests. They're riding a streak of 17 victories in their last 18.

That kind of run was expected when London acquired John Tavares in January.

"It's impressive what (London) has done because I got to the conference final last year (with Oshawa) and, at this point, it's a battle every night," Tavares said. "I think our first round series (against Erie) was physical and a few of the games got out of hand but it got us ready for what we would face down the road.

"Saginaw was pretty good. But whoever wins that other series will be ready too, after going through what they did."

The OHL's all-time leading goal-scorer was shut out on the road in the first round against the Otters. His personal history wasn't good in Saginaw but he recorded five points in two games here, including a third-period goal and three points last night.

"I was given some more penalty kill responsibility and I'm trying to do whatever I can to help the team," he said. "If I get the chance to score, then I'm going to try my best to put it in."

"Obviously, we've had some great playoff performances from Naz Kadri and Phil Varone and a young guy like Jared Knight chipping in too," Tavares said. "Guys like John Carlson and Michael Del Zotto at the back are really coming together, too, for us."

Before their winning March madness, the Knights went through a terrible February swoon. But Tavares said one move by the Hunters straightened everyone out and set the base for the stunning turnaround.

"When they sat down Naz (Kadri), I think everyone realized that if that could happen to someone as talented as him, then it could happen to any one of us," he said. "It really sent a message, brought everyone together and we figured out how we had to play."

It's as simple as this: the Hunter do what needs to be done to win. From sitting Rob Schremp in the playoffs five years ago to a five-man forward power play unit, to trading away Steve Mason and captain Adam Perry last year to set the stage for this team's opportunity, they manage to find the formula so many teams want.

"It's the third round, really, the Final Four in your league," London head coach Dale Hunter said. "You give yourself a chance to win. It's good scouting, good players. It's a young guy like Jared Knight playing well. It's all those things."

It's about making changes to the game plan on the fly and having players smart enough to implement them.

"After the first game (a 7-3 Knights win), every other game was close," Hunter said. "Their coach (Todd Watson) made some adjustments and forced us to adjust so we did.

"They played us tough. A 4-3 game here in Game 2 and then we needed to score late in the third period to put this one away."

No one cares who the Knights face when the third round starts after the Easter break. The Knights brass will likely scout the rest of the other series.

"We'll see how it goes," Dale Hunter said.

If it's the league champion Spits, the series will start at the WFCU Centre next week. If it's Londoner Matt Hackett and the surprising Whalers, it will begin at the John Labatt Centre.

Saginaw followed its four-game sweep of the Guelph Storm by coming up short in the first second-round series in team history.

"We had to test (Trevor) Cann a little more," Spirit forward Jordan Skellett said. "He showed us he could allow some weak goals. But we didn't work the puck down low the way we had to. They're (the Knights) too good on the rush. We couldn't play that way against them.

"But it was a good season for us. We won a first-round series for the first time. Ownership was happy with our performance and we'll take it from there."


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