Knights go to work

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:57 PM ET

Reid McNeill looked up toward the John Labatt Centre rafters full of championship banners, 50-win seasons and famous former London Knights.

“It’s been a while,” the lanky London defenceman said. “We haven’t played here (since Feb. 25). It’s going to be good to be back in front of the home fans, play these final few games and get energized for the playoffs.”

The Brier pebble is off the ice.

The surface on which Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton won the national men’s curling championship again belongs to the Knights, eager to prove they’re still a bunch of stout-hearted young men.

Six straight road losses can rock your senses. It can quickly sweep away all that good feeling built up post-OHL trade deadline in January.

“I think what we learned in these last six games is that we have to outwork the other teams,” said McNeill, a draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are still finding ways to win without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“Star players get frustrated when you’re always in front of them. When we bring that hard work, good things can happen. We’ve seen that against the stronger, more talented teams this year.

“We can compete with them if we bring that effort. And that’s what we have to start again.”

It’s hard to remember after the six-shot debacle in Mississauga and the four-goal first period blitz by Guelph that now sees London all but destined for eighth place.

But the last time the Knights were on home ice, they won. In fact, they had one of their best weeks of the year — beating Windsor, Saginaw and Owen Sound.

“We were gone a long time on the road and those games aren’t easy to win,” London head coach Dale Hunter said. “We had the lead in Windsor (and lost in the third period) and I thought we competed hard in Owen Sound (last Saturday). Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of the time, teams have a better home record than a road record.

“We know whoever we play, they put together a better year than we did. They finished with more points than we did, but that‘s the beauty of the playoffs. Everything rolls back to zero. We’ll have zero, they’ll have zero, and you start again from scratch.”

The power play, last in the league for much of the year, gets a do-over.

“You don’t have to look (at the press notes) and see you’re 19th on the power play anymore,” London forward Jared Knight said. “You’re back to zero again. Dale has told us that a couple times this week. We’re the underdog whoever we play and I think we’re OK with that.

“Whenever we’ve played top teams as underdogs, we’ve played our best.”

Hunter believes it boils down to confidence. No one stepped up and filled the net during the half-dozen losses.

“We tried some things and there were times when we threw the puck around pretty good, but then we miss a chance or two and you see the kids gripping their sticks and they need to stay relaxed,” he said. “In the playoffs, we need stronger special teams. We want our power play up but our penalty kill has to be better, too.”

There won’t be a first-round upset without it.

On Wednesday, a handful of Knights went to Detroit to watch two of the NHL’s better teams — the Red Wings and the Washington Capitals.

“We went down and saw John (Carlson) and it was pretty amazing to watch them warm up,” Knight said. “(Dennis) Wideman has a cannon and it was interesting to see (Alex) Ovechkin out there. His hair was all over the place. It was a nice break. The coaches worked us really hard in practice this week.

“It was pretty intense.”

Starting now, that flicker will turn into a full-blown flame and won’t stop burning until the Knights are snuffed out.

“You just want to see them play the right way,” Hunter said.

And if they do, they might fight for longer than anyone expects.

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ryanpyette

Playoff tickets

Individual game tickets for the first round are on sale now. London will play its first game of the series on Saturday, March 26 at 7 p.m.


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