March 18, 2011
Snipers key for Sarnia Sting
By RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency
So who’s in better shape for next year — the London Knights or the Sarnia Sting?
The Sting missed the playoffs for the second straight season but they boasted two of the OHL’s most dynamic rookies.
Nail Yakupov, who has surpassed Steve Stamkos’ stats, and first overall pick Alex Galchenyuk both put up mind-boggling numbers.
That bodes well for the Sting.
“Those two are such talented players and have done such a good job all year offensively, and defensively, too,” Sarnia forward Brett Ritchie said. “They’re going to be in this league a couple of years and it does look good for the future of this team.”
London has promising scorers — Seth Griffith, Andreas Athanasiou, the Rupert twins — but they’ll be hard-pressed to put up the numbers of this Sarnia duo.
But scoring isn’t usually the best indicator of a team’s future OHL success. For that, you start with the net and go out from there.
The Knights expect to have Michael Houser back in goal next season. The Sting graduate overager Troy Passingham this weekend and have rookie Brandon Hope, still largely unproven, back next year.
Houser is the Knights’ nominee for the Red Tilson Trophy as league MVP. In London’s Hunter era, goalies have usually been support players.
So this is kind of new.
“When (Houser’s) good, we win and when he’s great, he gets shutouts,” London assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu said. “And when he isn’t on, we struggle. He had an off game in Guelph (three goals in the first eight minutes) but to only have two bad games all year, that’s pretty good.
“He believes in himself, and you can go a long way with that — it still counts for a lot and I hope an NHL team gives him a shot one day with an AHL contract.”
The Knights don’t expect a playoff melt-down from Houser.
‘One thing we know about Michael Houser is nothing fazes him,” Beaulieu said. “If he lets in a goal, it’s done and he’s thinking about the next shot..”
The Knights didn’t have to sweat their playoff hopes down the stretch largely because Houser was so good in shootouts this year. London had the best record in the league, but the breakaway contests disappear in the postseason.
“There’s been so many games that he’s stolen for us this year,” London defenceman Jarred Tinordi. “He’s been great all year. We know we’re going to have to change the way we play (late in games) in the playoffs because there aren’t any more shootouts.”
The Sting, with their strong offence and questionable defence, have been in a ton of offensive shootouts this season.
“We gave up too many goals — it’s been up and down all year,” Ritchie said. “We have a stretch like we did (recently) where we give up 28 goals in three games and come back the next week and beat Saginaw, Guelph and almost beat Windsor.
There will be a new GM and coach in Sarnia next year. Depending how they do in Sault Ste. Marie Saturday night, they’ll pick third or fourth in the draft in May.
They’ll get another blue-chip player — maybe even Ritchie’s younger brother, Nick, a standout with the Greater Toronto Hockey League champion Toronto Marlies.
“He played up a few years with me in minor hockey,” Brett Ritchie said. “It would be great if he ends up here, but wherever he goes, he’ll be with a good team.
That’s the largest issue for Sarnia right now. This week, the Knights are in pre-playoff mode preparing for their first-round matchup.
They dressed Tyler Ferry, who can suit up with London the rest of the season after his Stouffville Spirit lost a Game 7 in the Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs, against the Sting. Michael Moffat still have bad ribs and Jake Worrad played, seeing first-line power-play duty.
The Knights plan to leave Houser at home while they make the trip to Owen Sound Saturday. They’ll start Igor Bobkov and bring Darien Ekblad, a Belle River Canadiens puckstopper, as backup.
Houser is expected to start Sunday against Kitchener.
He’s expected to be back next year. The wild card on defence will be Jarred Tinordi, the only one of the Knights’ top-four blueliners who’s a question mark to return.
His solid second half might earn him a spot with the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
If he does return to junior, the Knights will have a major edge on the Sting in net and on defence.
And it’ll take a lot of goals from Yakupov and Galchenyuk to close that gap.
Knights x, Sting x
London goals: Vladislav Namestnikov
Sarnia goals: Kale Kerbashian
Next: The Knights face the Western Conference champ Owen Sound Attack Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre.