ERIE, Pa. — They were held up for a long time at customs trying to cross the Peace Bridge.
They fell one victory short of 50 wins for the third time in seven years.
And after absorbing their worst defeat in their final regular season game — 8-3 to the Erie Otters before 5,304 at Tullio Arena Saturday night — the London Knights still don’t know who they’re going to face in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
This was one painful trip to Pennsylvania.
Erie, Saginaw and Guelph all won Saturday night so nothing in the Knights’ playoff future was decided.
London, No. 2 in the Western Conference, could still play any one of three potential seventh seeds.
If Saginaw wins in Plymouth Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. start), the Knights face the Guelph Storm.
If Saginaw gains a point with an overtime or shootout loss, London draws the Spirit.
And if the Spirit get shut down and lose in regulation to the Whalers, the Knights face the Otters in the first round for the second year in a row.
“It doesn’t matter to us who we play,” London captain Justin Taylor said. “We had success against everyone in the league. But it was a long 68-game regular season and I think we’re all ready to get started on the playoffs.
“We’ll pay attention to that (Plymouth-Saginaw) game just to see who we match up against.”
London head coach Dale Hunter has made plans to attend the contest.
This current group of Knights ended up posting an identical 49-16-1-2 record to last year’s John Tavares-led team.
Taylor was on the last 50-win Knights team in 2006-07 — the year Pat Kane, Sam Gagner and Steve Mason paved the road.
“It isn’t easy to do,” the 21-year-old Londoner said. “You need some bounces to go your way. We didn’t get there this year but we got to audition some of our younger players and that’s an important thing to do.
“It’s just nice to be part of a dynasty, a team that finishes with at least 96 points almost every year and is always competing for a division title.”
Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Nazem Kadri and top defender Steve Tarasuk escaped the Erie beat-down by staying home to rest for the post-season.
London forward Chris DeSousa sat out the third period as a precautionary measure with a “bruise.”
Veteran defender Michael D’Orazio took a puck in his ear and briefly left the game.
“It deflected off my stick and up,” he said. “My ear was bleeding for a while. I still can’t hear out of it fully.”
He doesn’t have to be told how the Knights finished against their potential playoff rivals.
They split four games with the Spirit, who handed the Knights one of their four losses at the John Labatt Centre this year.
They went 5-1 against Guelph and their lone loss was a marathon shootout at the Sleeman Centre.
They went 4-2 against Erie and haven’t lost at home to the Otters since 2002. They survived a crazy 8-7
shootout win Jan. 9 where the Otters roared back from five goals down in the third period to force overtime when St. Thomas native Greg McKegg scored with less than one second left.
“It shows you how important every point is,” said Erie head coach Robbie Ftorek, whose team wore green jerseys to match the colour of the ice in a pre-St. Paddy’s Day celebration. “We really wanted to finish off that one with a win. Right now, we’ve done what we can and we’ll just wait to see who we play.”
It could be the Knights. The two clubs played a riveting and largely disrespectful five-game series last year.
But a lot of the major cast of characters in that first-round feud — Zac Rinaldo, Ryan O’Reilly, Tavares, Luke Gazdic and Michael Liambas — are no longer on either team.
The Knights weren’t expected to challenge for 50 wins this year. They flew under the radar for the most part.
“Windsor’s been so good the past few years,” Dale Hunter said. “It’s been them, then the rest of us in the league.”
But if there’s a case to be made that Hunter deserves OHL coach of the year honours, this could be the season.
It’ll be hard to knock off Barrie’s Marty Williamson since the Colts were the best team in the league this year.
And Jason Brooks found a way to resurrect Guelph, who looked headed for a non-playoff disaster before turning it on over the final two months.
But this team winning 49 games is a lot like the post-Memorial Cup team with Rob Schremp, David Bolland and goalie Adam Dennis that finished with the same number of victories.
“We have a better D now than (2005-06),” Hunter said. “Our second line with DeSousa, Daniel Erlich and Knight Rider (Jared Knight) is pretty good, too.
“Our goaltending’s been good and we’ve done well at home. What did we go — 30-4? When you don’t lose very much at home, you stop those long losing streaks.”
And in the end, they turned into a team that will face a first-round opponent who won’t be all that happy to see them.
Otters 8, Knights 3
Erie goals: Anthony Luciani (3), Brady Austin, Mitch Gaulton, Zack Torquato, Shawn Szydlowski, David Broll
London goals: Michael MacDonald (2), Justin Taylor
Next: The Knights open the 2009-10 playoffs against Guelph, Erie or Saginaw next week.
THE 49th PARALLEL
(The London Knights have finished with 49 wins three of the past seven season)