KITCHENER — Michael Hutchinson won 32 games as the London Knights starting goalie last year.
Michael Houser, his backup at the time and now the No. 1 guy, gunned for his 30th victory Tuesday night against the Rangers at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.
It didn’t happen. He ended up getting pulled after two periods in a 5-2 loss before 6,316.
He stopped 29 of 33 shots. The Rangers were all over the Knights and dominated puck possession.
It’ll be tough for Houser, the undrafted 18-year-old from just outside Pittsburgh, to surpass big Hutch’s win total this season.
The competition is ultra-tough the rest of the way and most of the Knights’ remaining games are on the road.
Plus, he really only has a handful of starts left.
The Knights are going to sit Houser a couple of games in the next few weeks and give Igor Bobkov, who gave up a Gabriel Landeskog goal 58 seconds into the third period, the net.
It’s for insurance purposes ahead of the playoffs.
They don’t want him burned out before the post-season starts and they certainly don’t want him to get hurt before the second season starts.
Houser, to this point, has already played nearly 300 more minutes than Hutchinson, now with the Providence Bruins, did last year.
That’s the scale head coach Dale Hunter and Co. are constantly trying to balance.
Sure, the Knights still have an eye at moving up the standings. If they finish the season winning more than they lose, they have a shot at improving on sixth place in the OHL’s Western Conference final.
But they can’t risk losing Houser, their clear MVP this year.
“When the games run together and bunch up (like Thursday in Windsor and Friday in Mississauga against the Memorial Cup host Majors), you have to look at things a little differently,” London assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu said. “We’ve had some guys — Stephen Sanza, Jarred Tinordi, Scott Harrington — who have played a lot of minutes for us and they’re going to need a break at some point before the playoffs.
“But we have some guys looking to be drafted by NHL teams and you want to weigh that, too. You want them to have the chance to play.”
The Knights know they are limited in top-end depth right now. They need their top players firing on all cylinders to have a chance at advancing past the first round.
They spent the first five minutes against pressuring Kitchener, determined not to make any mistakes. At any sign of danger, they iced the puck.
You’ve got to win an awful lot of faceoffs to play that way on an extended basis.
Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy opened the scoring with a power-play blast that Houser couldn’t see because Gabriel Landeskog’s thick frame was right in his face.
Ryan Rupert tied it on a nice one-timer with the Knights on a two-man advantage.
The Rangers took over with a three-goal second.
Jamie Doornbosch, the former Peterborough Petes defender, had another multi-goal game against the Knights.
He has five goals in five games against London. He likes to creep in from the blue line, then flood the slot. The Rangers are clever in tight with the puck and it has given him some empty nets to shoot at.
The good news for the Knights is they’re already in the playoffs. Clearly, the Rangers will be another tough matchup.
But these final few weeks will determine where they finish and who they play.
“It’s a nice reward for this group to make it,” London defenceman Reid McNeill said, “but we want to see how high we can get.
“It’s up to the coaches who sits out and that sort of thing, but you ask most of the guys and they want to keep playing right till the end.”
The Knights haven’t fared well against conference foes Kitchener and Plymouth their past two games. But their three-win week over Windsor, Saginaw and Owen Sound was a big confidence boost.
“What we learned is this year, any team can beat any other team,’’ McNeill said. “We know we can beat the big teams. We’ve proven that.”
But they’ve lost four straight against Kitchener and given up their game in hand on the Erie Otters.
Maybe Reality Week was just delayed a few days.
Tyler Ferry was back with the Knights Tuesday, but not yet on a full-time basis. His Stouffville Spirit beat Markham in six games in the first round of the Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs.
The forward/defender had two assists in the series.
The Knights still don’t have a captain. Stephen Sanza remains the only player wearing a letter.
Right now, the only letter London cares about is a few more ‘W’s.
As usual, none of them will come easy.
Rangers 5, Knights 2
Kitchener goals: Jamie Doornbosch (2), Ryan Murphy, Matt Tipoff, Gabriel Landeskog
London goals: Ryan
Rupert, Dylan MacEachern
Next: The Knights are in Windsor Thursday at 7:05 p.m. Then they’re on to Mississauga on Friday night to face the Memorial Cup hosts.