The Guelph Storm and London Knights will take their rivalry to the next level in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series on Friday Night Hockey.
Although not historical rivals, this series should intensify and ultimately define what could become one of the Ontario Hockey League’s biggest rivalries. The Knights are the back-to-back J. Ross Robertson Cup holders as OHL champs while the Storm captured the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as regular season winners this season.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch Game 1 of the OHL second-round playoff series between the Guelph Storm and London Knights on Sportsnet ONE Friday starting at 7:30 p.m. EST
With a semifinal berth on the line, this is where rivalries are built.
"It takes two teams to have a rivalry," Storm head coach Scott Walker says. "The London Knights have held up their end. They’ve been the two-time champions, they’re hosting the Memorial Cup, they’re going to go to the Memorial Cup three years in a row, which is pretty impressive in junior hockey. They’ve held up their end; now we have to hold up our end of the bargain and play hard. I think our players are excited for the challenge."
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
After each team quickly dispatched of their first-round opponents, the playoffs essentially start on Friday with this huge tilt. In any other year, this matchup could have been a round later but due to the strength of the Western Conference, the Storm finished first with 108 points while the Knights were the fourth-seed with five fewer points and the third-most overall.
The home team won all six regular season meetings, which would imply the Storm have the advantage in Friday’s game. However, neither Walker nor Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter believes home-ice will have a great bearing on this series.
Although it’s just the first game in the series, it can’t be undersold on its importance. A road victory by the Knights would steal home ice away from the Storm and give them an immediate advantage with two of the next three in London.
"It’s huge," Hunter explains. "It changes the whole outlook of the series."
Both teams will be playing with less than their full lineup. Injuries and suspensions ravaged both rosters, with the Knights missing starting goalie Anthony Stolarz (suspension), Zach Bell (broken leg) and Brady Austin (mono) and the Storm without Brock McGinn (suspension) and possibly Robby Fabbri (upper-body injury).
Kerby Rychel versus Nikita Zadorov
This is why the Storm traded for Rychel. Guelph wanted a power-forward with offensive abilities and found that in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect. Rychel is strong on the forecheck and makes life difficult for the defence and goaltender.
With the Knights now missing their shutdown duo of Bell and Austin, the defensive responsibilities fall to the Buffalo Sabres’ first-round pick Zadorov. The Russian defender is one of the few players in the OHL that can match Rychel physically. Zadorov likes to play the body and wins the majority of puck battles, which will be an interesting subplot in this game and series.
Both players have huge competitive spirits and this matchup should only bring out the best in each.
"Hopefully, (Rychel) comes and plays as hard as he can because when he does he’s an extremely effective player," Walker says.
"(Zadorov) likes going up against those top lines and having that opportunity to shut down top-end players," Hunter adds. "He’s got all the tools. He can play that skill game but he can also hit very hard and he’s a good skater. So I think he’s really looking forward to the challenge of playing against those top lines."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Guelph: Jason Dickinson, LW
Dickinson is a coach’s dream. He may not bring fans out of their seats with the highlight-reel plays but makes the type of plays a coach will draw up in practice and watch him succeed in a game. The Dallas Stars’ first-round pick is a solid, dependable two-way threat.
"When he came in here as a 16-year-old, he was one of those kids you just wish you could mould and get about three more years out of him because he just does all the little things," Walker says. "He’s a good, solid hockey player. He plays defence, blocks shots, penalty kills, powerplay, and quietly does it. He’s not a loud guy. He’s not a big rah-rah guy. He just goes about his business. He’s just the consummate professional and I think he’s going to have a heck of a hockey career."
London: Brett Welychka, RW/D
Welychka is the type of glue guy every championship team needs. The London, Ont. product is a reliable secondary scorer and now a dependable defenceman. Welychka stepped up when asked to take on a new challenge and will be back in his temporary spot on the blue line due to injuries.
"He understands the game very well," Hunter says. "He can still make good defensive plays but also bring offence from your back line. It’s something we’ve used the last couple years – we’ve had Tyler Ferry here that did the same and with the character Welly has, he accepts that role and he embraces it knowing that it’s something he doesn’t play all the time." Storm, Knights take rivalry to next level