Knights punch ticket to Shawinigan

London Knights pose with J. Ross Robertson Cup after winning the OHL championship with a 2-1 defeat...

London Knights pose with J. Ross Robertson Cup after winning the OHL championship with a 2-1 defeat of the Niagara Ice Dogs at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., May 11, 2012. (DEREK RUTTAN/QMI Agency)

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:29 AM ET

LONDON, ONT. - Time to brush up on your basic French, London.

The Knights are back in the Memorial Cup tournament -- and this time, they're heading to Shawinigan, Que.

London punched its ticket to the big dance by closing out the Niagara IceDogs with a nail-biting 2-1 victory in Game 5 of the OHL final and celebrating the second J. Ross Robertson Cup in franchise history before a sold-out crowd of 9,046 Friday night at the John Labatt Centre.

"We had our doubters," London veteran forward Austin Watson said. "People said this wasn't our year, that we were too young, we weren't ready to win a championship, all those kinds of things.

"But you know what? We made it our year."

They did it in familiar fashion -- with a defence-first mentality, tight checking, courageous shot-blocking and timely goal-scoring. Watson, the Knight who encapsulated all those qualities, earned the Wayne Gretzky 99 Trophy as playoff MVP with 10 goals, 17 points and a lot of bruises from throwing his body in front of pucks.

"I'm blessed, it's the first time I've ever won anything like this before and I'm just proud to be part of this group of guys," said Watson, who won a Memorial Cup in his rookie season with the Windsor Spitfires in 2009 at Rimouski, the tournament's last stop in Quebec. "Winning never gets old. My French is still terrible but hopefully, we can write the same finish."

London GM/head coach Mark Hunter brought Watson in from Peterborough in a January trade. He said it turned out to be a "tremendous acquisition" and had the other biggie -- Greg McKegg -- out there to take the pivotal faceoff in the last half-minute.

Hunter became the first person in OHL history to take over a bench in the middle of the season and lead it to a league title. He stepped in after Dale Hunter went to Washington on Nov. 28 to coach the Capitals.

"Some of these young coaches, they think they've got it all figured out," he said, "but you pick some things up over time, you learn some things along the way. I learned that. Dale knows that and that's part of the reason why he left."

His Knights held Niagara, the OHL's highest-scoring team, the one with the best power play and the most Canadian world junior players, to 10 goals in five games.

"This team played great defence," Hunter said. "They did that throughout the playoffs. Even in the beginning in the Windsor series, when we weren't scoring a lot of goals. Bobby Boughner and those guys will tell you (we) didn't give them many chances."

London matched rivals Windsor and Kitchener, who they beat this spring, in yet another way. This will be their second trip to the Cup -- same as the Spitfires and Rangers over the last decade.

Breaking that seven-year itch is one of the reasons London captain Jarred Tinordi handed the Robertson Cup over to overager and London native Colin Martin, who hasn't appeared in these playoffs but grew up around the 2005 championship team, second.

"He's a guy who worked his butt off for the Knights the last five years," Tinordi said. "This is a special moment for everyone. We won games like this all year. We never got rattled. You never expect (an atmosphere like this) and it was something to be a part of it."

London stormed back from early holes to win the first three games. In the final two, they didn't give Niagara a sniff.

"We're just a resilient team," said London goalie Michael Houser, who handled the pressure of being named the league's most outstanding player right before the series. "We just kept battling and never let up and that's how you win championships. You've seen us do it all year."

Watson opened the scoring in the second period, poking a puck past Niagara goalie Mark Visentin, who couldn't find it in his legs.

Seth Griffith put the Knights up 2-0 early in the third by converting a 2-on-1 chance with Vladislav Namestnikov. Tom Kuhnhackl drew the IceDogs close, but Houser made a brilliant pad save with a couple minutes left to frustrate Niagara once more.

Thirty-five years ago, Knights forward Dan Eastman was the hero in an eight-game series win over St. Catharines that sent London to its first OHL final.

This time, the Knights beat another St. Catharines-based team to win the franchise's league title -- and this time, they all, at one point or another, played the hero role.

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OHL PLAYOFFS

(London wins best-of-seven championship series 4-1)

Knights 2, IceDogs 1

London goals: Austin Watson, Seth Griffith

Niagara goal: Tom Kuhnhackl

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Memorial Cup Bound

(May 18-27 at Centre Bionest in Shawinigan, Que.)

Who’s In: London Knights. OHL champs beat Niagara IceDogs 2-1 Friday night for five-game series win.

Saint John Sea Dogs: Defending Memorial Cup champs swept Rimouski in Quebec league final.

Shawinigan Cataractes: Host team. Lost in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs.

To be determined: Edmonton Oil Kings lead Western Hockey League final 3-2 over the Portland Winterhawks. Game 6 is Saturday night in Portland, Ore.

E-mail ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca or follow RyanatLFPress on Twitter.


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