LONDON, ONT. - It took 68 regular season games, 14 playoff games for the London Knights and 15 for the Niagara IceDogs to do what most people believed they would do.
That was to make the Ontario Hockey League final.
That was especially true after Christmas as both teams began to fine tune a run to the Memorial Cup tournament, making it evident that short of an upset London and Niagara Falls would win their respective conferences.
There were differences in the road the two took to the best-of-seven series that begins Thursday at the John Labatt Centre.
The IceDogs were considered one of the favourites to be here when the season began. Last year, they were much like the Knights this year . . . a young team with plenty of talent.
The Knights were expected to be competitive but many said they were a year away still.
The IceDogs didn't start like a team ready to win an OHL title. They began the season in a bit of a mess.
This was the year the IceDogs targeted as the year they were going to make a push for the title.
"We actually started looking at it last year," said coach and general manager Marty Williamson. "We didn't add players last year because we believed this year's team would be better. We didn't want to spend too much last year . . . we thought last year we were a little bit too young."
But with players with great promise comes great anxiety, especially when NHL teams are involved.
"Then the scare game began," Williamson said. "Are you going to get Dougie (Hamilton) back and (Ryan) Strome back and with (Alex) Friesen, was he going to get signed? You go through that. Then when you know you are getting those guys back, then you focus on trying to make this team as best as possible."
When you toss in a 20-game suspension to Tom Kuhnhagle, several IceDog players having to play showcase games like the Subway Series and four of them going to the World Junior hockey tournament . . .
"We also had a horrible preseason. We were a mess," Williamson said. "We were muddling along but we still believed we had a pretty good hockey team."
That's when London caught them the first time, beating the IceDogs 7-3 in St. Catharines.
It was quite a different start for the Knights. They came flying out of the blocks and the early season held down the No. 1 ranking in Canada. They were never far from the top after that.
"I expected we'd have a good team. We had a mixture of young guys and old guys and I didn't know how well our young guys would develop and they developed well," said Knights' coach and general manager Mark Hunter said by way of explaining whether his team is a year early for the big dance.
"One of the things we had was Michael Houser playing so well," Hunter said. "Michael played so well he put our team to a real good level of consistency and confidence for our young guys."
Hunter skirted around the issue of whether the IceDogs should be favoured in this series.
"Do they have more older guys, more experience? They have Team Canada guys. You have to spell it out where they do have more proven older players," Hunter said. "We have younger players that have to prove themselves on a day-to-day basis. If you say they have more proven players ready to win a series, I'd say yeah. But right now I like our team. We'll see what happens. We have to play the game."
Both Williamson and Hunter believe the series will be more like the second and final game between the two teams played in February, a 3-2 win by the IceDogs at the JLC.
"It was a really good game," Hunter said, "... really good."
"It was a tight, close, excellent game," Williamson said.
London Knights vs. Niagara IceDogs
Thursday: at London, 7 p.m.
Saturday: at Niagara, 7 p.m.
Monday: at London, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, May 9: at Niagara, 7†p.m.
Friday, May 11: if necessary, at London, 7 p.m.
Sunday, May 13: if necessary, at†Niagara, 2 p.m.
Monday, May 14: if necessary, at†London, 7†p.m.