Fourth or bust for Knights

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:14 PM ET

Dale Hunter knows what it’s going to take to fix the ailing London Knights.

It isn’t a magic puck potion.

It isn’t different line combinations, though there’s bound to be some in-game juggling.

And it might not end up being trips to Windsor on Thursday and to Memorial Cup host Mississauga on Friday, though the sagging Knights could really use at least a win in one of those two road games.

It’s practice. A lot more of it. The Knights head coach believes in its power to heal.

“We haven’t had a full week of practice in four or five weeks,” Hunter said. “We’ve played so many games here lately and when you do that, your defensive game can suffer a little bit. When you practise once or twice a week, you don’t have the time to correct some of those things that creep into your game.

“But you look at the schedule and after this week, we have a full week of practice before playing Friday and then another one after that. We’ll have the time we need to get ready for the playoffs.”

They’ll get their workouts in. But the worry is by the time they’re done, the Knights will be mired in the eighth and final playoff spot in the OHL’s Western Conference.

This is the temptation facing these playoff-bound Knights. They’re just a quick winning streak away from climbing up to fourth place, but after two bad losses in Plymouth and Kitchener and a tough finishing stretch, they’re also in danger of sinking below the Guelph Storm.

It’s a point of pride among the Knights players to finish above the eighth spot — no matter if they’d draw a more favourable first-round matchup or not.

“Fourth place is in our sights and it would be a great accomplishment to get there and to start the playoffs at home,” said goalie Michael Houser.

The Knights haven’t opened a playoff series away from the JLC since 2003.

The Hunters, though competitive as always, are more concerned about making sure the team has a chance to win that first-round series.

“We want to be teaching and see a lot of learning and continual improvement,” Hunter said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. You look (at the video) defensively and guys are only a foot out of position.

“It’s not much. It can be corrected with practice and attention to detail.”

Some things can be fixed quicker than others. There’s no reason for a winger to allow an opposing team’s defenceman to sneak into the slot and score a huge goal the way Kitchener’s Jamie Doornbosch did on Tuesday night.

“The winger has to be aware of a D-man pinching,” Hunter said. “If he goes, you have to go with him. That’s pretty much everyone’s system. Guys need to have their heads on a swivel. You’ve got to be careful with Windsor because (Ryan) Ellis does that, too.”

The Spitfires captain has a real shot at finishing with 100 points this year. He’s had a handful of five-point outbursts and the Knights want to make sure it doesn’t happen against them.

London doesn’t have that player in the mobile mould of Ellis or Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy, who have both buried the Knights in recent years.

“Or you look at (Josh) McFadden in Sudbury who had five assists the other night,” Hunter said. “Those kind of d-man, you have to worry about.”

Jake Worrad might be that offensive threat one day. He practised with the Knights Tuesday but he’s playing with the St. Thomas Stars during their playoff run and got into game action last week for the first time in six months after knee surgery.

Mike Moffat could be that kind of guy, too. He’ll serve the fifth and final game of his suspension Thursday for a hit in Sudbury a week and a half ago.

He’s been watching Ellis closely for a while now.

“Patience,” Moffat said. “He’s got incredible patience on the ice. He never gets rattled. He’s constantly talking to his teammates.

“He’s been a great player in this league for a long time now. You watch how he does it, and you hope to get that opportunity some day.”

The Knights moved hard-working Cody Donnay, who has flourished up front lately, back on defence with Moffat out against Kitchener.

“We wanted some stronger guys at the back end because Kitchener comes after you hard,” Hunter said.

So does Windsor and Mississauga. So will everyone over these final seven games.

There’s a lot of practice in store for the Knights. But if they don’t pick up some points along the way, they’re going to end up in eighth place.

Knights’ final seven

Thursday: at Windsor, 7:05 p.m. Sagging defending champs always tough at home.

Friday: at Mississauga, 7 p.m. Memorial Cup hosts have lost only seven times at Hershey Centre.

March 11: at Guelph, 7:30 p.m. Storm trying to get out of eighth place.

March 12: at Owen Sound, 7:30 p.m. Attack will have star Joey Hishon back.

March 18: vs. Sarnia, 7:30 p.m. Relaxed Sting could be spoilers.

March 19: at Owen Sound, 7:30 p.m. Second trip there in a week.

March 20: vs. Kitchener, 4 p.m. Final game a quick turnaround.

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ryanpyette


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