It will be a rematch of the Ontario Hockey League championship series when Scott Harrington’s London Knights host Ryan Strome’s Niagara IceDogs on Friday Night Hockey.
The stakes are different now than they were in May, but there won’t be any love lost when the two meet in the same building where the Knights realized their dream while ending those of the IceDogs.
“The London Knights are the model franchise; everybody wants to beat them,” IceDogs head coach and general manager Marty Williamson said. “They’re the team that stopped our dream last year. For the guys that are still here, that will be fresh in their mind and we’d love to go in there and win a hockey game.”
There will be many familiar faces on both sides, most notably Canadian world junior hopefuls Harrington from the Knights and Strome, defenceman Dougie Hamilton and winger Brett Ritchie from the IceDogs. All four will head to Calgary, Alta., for Canada’s selection camp, which opens on Monday.
Harrington, named Knights team captain this season, realizes there may be more jump to the IceDogs’ game.
“We know it’s going to be an emotional game for them and us also, and I know all the guys are really looking forward to it,” he said.
The Knights enter the game on an unprecedented 16-game winning streak and sit first-overall in league standings. Their hunger is buoyed by the fact the Knights didn’t realize the ultimate dream, losing the MasterCard Memorial Cup final to the host Shawinigan Cataractes in overtime.
“One of the biggest (reasons for our success) is we didn’t win it all last year. We won the OHL, but just came up short in the Mem Cup finals,” Harrington said. “We have a lot of returning guys and we’re all hungry to get back to that game and redeem ourselves and I think that’s the biggest thing driving our team right now.”
Strome is making the most of his fourth and final junior season, averaging two points per game with his league-leading 62 in 31 games. His greatest contribution, however, can be traced beyond the score sheet and traced to his leadership and mentorship role, something Williamson knows will greatly benefit the younger players as they move forward.
“One thing that Ryan has really done and to Dougie (Hamilton’s) credit too is the leadership they’ve shown on this team at times when we needed them to take them on their back, they’ve done it,” Williamson said. “They’ve been able to talk and inspire other players to play well too. For me, the leadership has been the big thing for both guys.”
Not far behind Strome in the league-scoring race is Boston Bruins draft pick Seth Griffith. Although Griffith wasn’t rewarded with an opportunity to represent Canada at the world junior tournament, the fourth-year forward is taking his game to new heights this season.
“I think the biggest thing is his confidence is up this year,” Harrington noted. “He really laid the foundation last year and had a solid year for us. He’s been working hard in practice, he’s shooting hundreds of pucks a day and in turn the pucks are going in during the games for him. He’s been great for us and we’re looking for him to keep playing well so we can have a good run this year.”
The Knights are receiving big returns from Max Domi in his draft season. He was a big part of the team a year ago, but is playing a more prominent role after some key graduations last summer. The draft-eligible forward is second in team scoring and 10th overall with 17 goals and 41 points in 31 games.
“Max is extremely mature for his age and he knows what to expect,” Harrington said. “I know he’s looking forward to the draft upcoming after the season. He’s been consistent for us this year and hopefully he can keep that up and I’m sure his (draft) stock will keep rising.”
Carter Verhaeghe’s rookie season was a product of a young player playing a minimal role on a veteran-laden team. Williamson is enamored with the young forward who’s breaking out of his shell this season.
“We like Carter an awful lot,” his coach said. “He’s got little bits of Ryan Strome to him. He’s able to get through traffic with the puck, he’s making plays now. He’s got some finish coming in. I really think the second half of the season is going to be real good for Carter.”
Goaltending was a question mark for both teams coming into the season. The IceDogs were graduating Mark Visentin, whose 10 shutouts broke the league record previously held by Don Lockhart’s nine set in 1949-50. The Knights, meanwhile, saw the departure of Michael Houser, who was named the league’s Most Outstanding Player last year.
Niagara’s goalie coach, Ben Vanderklok, suggested the team acquire Chris Festarini from Erie last season as insurance to the position. Festarini is rewarding the IceDogs’ faith in him with solid goaltending this season.
“I know this summer my stomach turned up and down a little bit about my goaltending,” Williamson said. “Festarini really hadn’t been proven and all he does is go in there and play to the best of his ability every night and gives us a chance and I just can’t say enough good things. We wouldn’t be where we are (without him). You can say what you want about Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton — the biggest surprise and one of the nicest surprises for our team has been Chris Festarini.”
The Knights traded for overager Kevin Bailie from Oshawa this summer and Bailie has given his new team the dependable goaltending they needed.
“I’m sure it’s hard going to a new team when you’ve played in Oshawa your whole career, but he’s been solid for us,” Harrington said. “Both (Bailie and backup Jake Patterson) are making big saves when it counts and they’re keeping us in hockey games long enough for us to get going and score some goals.”
Harrington is one of six returning players for Canada and will likely wear a letter this time around. He’s using these final few league games as preparation for the high intensity he will see in Calgary.
“You can’t just turn it off and on, you have to make sure you’re doing the right things in the games leading up to the camp and that’s what I’ve been focusing on the last couple weekends here,” he said.
Harrington could see some familiar opposition with Knights teammate Olli Maatta representing the Finns and newcomer Nikita Zadorov possibly representing Russia. Harrington will be joined at the camp by Niagara’s Strome, Hamilton and Ritchie, with the first two having also played in last year’s tournament.
“As much as they’re fantastic kids and they’ve been great for our organization, this is a tough time of year for them,” Williamson said. “They know they’re leaving on Sunday or Monday, they head to the world juniors, they have to play a couple more games, but I expect those guys to play and play well. But I do know it’s draining on them when they start getting pulled in a lot of different directions.”
A win for the IceDogs wouldn’t erase the pain of seeing the Knights hoist the J. Ross Robertson Cup in May, but it could provide the young and somewhat rebuilding team with a moral victory. Should the NHL lockout end, they would potentially be stripped of their stars Strome and Hamilton, which means it’s imperative for the IceDogs to get as many wins as possible while they’re still in junior.
“Whenever you play a team that’s on a roll like (the Knights) are,” Williamson said, “yeah, it’s a big game. We’d love to come out on the top end and go into that building and get a win. That would be huge for us.”
The Knights, meanwhile, are on a roll, but don’t have much room for error in the Midwest Division standings. The Owen Sound Attack are right behind while the Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm are also in the hunt.
“We all understand the importance of every game and you can’t take a night off, especially in our division because it will end up burning you in the end,” Harrington said.