King on OHL: Knights poised to go deep

Captain and defensive defenceman Scott Harrington is the heart and soul of the London Knights. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 The London Knights are banking on talent, a deep lineup and experience to be the guiding light in the team’s bid to win back-to-back J. Ross Robertson Cup championships.

The Knights are the undisputed favourite as the playoffs begin on Thursday. London’s 10-year run is one of the most successful decades a junior team ever enjoyed, and they’ll be looking to avenge a heartbreaking overtime loss in last year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup final.

The field is deep, however, and particularly in the Western Conference. The Plymouth Whalers, Owen Sound Attack and Kitchener Rangers could threaten the Knights’ rein, while the soon-to-be relocated Brampton Battalion are a team floating below the radar and could surprise.

The Favourite
London Knights
Regular season record: 50-13-2-3 (105 points)
League ranking: First in Western Conference, first overall
Goal differential: 279-180
First-round opponent: Saginaw Spirit

The Knights are giving their fans an unbelievable 10-year run, which includes a MasterCard Memorial Cup championship, two OHL titles, eight Midwest Division crowns and six Hamilton Spectator Trophy titles as regular season champions. Although they lost some key players from last year’s team — most notably league most outstanding player Michael Houser, captain Jarred Tinordi and shot-blocking sensation Austin Watson — the Knights are primed for another run.

They were anointed favourites at the start of the year when they returned a large core from last year’s team that lost in overtime in the MasterCard Memorial Cup final. Among that core features young and old, from sophomores Max Domi and Bo Horvat to veterans Scott Harrington and Seth Griffith. Add in new players Nikita Zadorov, Alex Broadhurst and Anthony Stolarz and the Knights hardly missed a beat. They came within a shot of tying the OHL and Canadian Hockey League record for most consecutive wins of 25, winning 24-straight before Sarnia’s Nikolay Goldobin snapped the streak in overtime on Jan. 1.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is the same as it was last season: depth. The names may be different, but the Knights can roll four lines again this season and receive scoring throughout the lineup. The leader is Domi, whose 39 goals and 87 points make him the most formidable scorer, although Seth Griffith finished with 81 points in 10 fewer games.

Horvat assumed some of Watson’s responsibilities as a shot-blocker, while still scoring 33 times. The Knights boast six players with more than 20 goals and five players that eclipsed the 50-point plateau. They’ve got agitators in Rupert twins Ryan and Matt, along with forwards that play the body like Remi Elie.

The defence is stout and provides them with many different elements. Olli Maatta and Zadorov are solid, two-way defenders and can inject offence into the lineup, while Harrington and Justin Sefton are two defenders responsible for shutting down the other team’s top scorers.

What makes this team so dangerous is the fact that it’s deep and experienced and after losing in last year’s national championship final, they should also be hungry – a scary combination.

Weaknesses: If one were to identify a weakness in the lineup, it may be between the pipes. Houser left some big skates to fill when he moved on to the professional ranks, and the team received good returns on overage Kevin Bailie and Jake Patterson early in the season. Bailie was replaced in January with Philadelphia Flyers prospect Stolarz who left the NCAA to join the Knights. His transition to the OHL went well, though it remains to be seen if he can provide the goaltending Houser did in last year’s playoffs.

X-factor: The uniform they wear is one revered and reviled by every other team in the league. Nary a season goes by without the Knights needing to overcome a large target on their backs. When a team enjoys as much success as the Knights have, every team in the league wants the distinction of beating them, similarly to how the Sarnia Sting hold such distinction for ending the Knights’ long winning streak in January.

The Western Conference is as strong as it may have ever been, and the potential for an upset exists with more than one suitor. Home-ice advantage means they will get the more favourable matchups, but this run will be anything but a walk in the park.

The Darkhorse
Brampton Battalion
Regular season record: 34-25-3-6 (77 points)
League ranking: Fourth in Eastern Conference, 10th overall
Goal differential: 193-190
First-round opponent: Sudbury Wolves

The biggest news in Brampton came off the ice in mid-November, when the Battalion’s relocation to North Bay, Ont. was unanimously approved in an OHL board of governors meeting. This move is hardly surprising to anyone, since the Battalion never found a large enough core of dedicated fans for long-term sustainability in the Toronto suburb.

League commissioner David Branch commended owner Scott Abbott’s patience prior to the team’s OHL championship series against Windsor in 2009, saying Abbott “deserved a medal.” Abbott, the co-creator of Trivial Pursuit, most certainly deserves credit for keeping the Battalion in Brampton for 15 lean years when many more owners would have cut the cord and left town long ago.

Strengths: The one constant in Brampton, aside from dwindling fan support, is head coach Stan Butler. He’s the only head coach the club has ever known, and has a reputation of getting the most out of a group with few marquee names. It’s a total team effort in Brampton, and this year’s version is no different.

The most notable player is goaltender Matej Machovsky. The Czech native is the backbone to a team that finished with the second-fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Machovsky is one of the league’s top goaltenders and would surely receive more publicity for his exploits if he played in just about any other market.

The other notable player in Brampton is former first-round pick Barclay Goodrow. The veteran forward led the way with 38 goals in 62 games this season, good for a tie of 10th place in goals scored. There is a lunch pail crew behind him, with six Battalion players registering more than 30 points this season. They’ll need a balanced attack in order to make some noise in the playoffs.

Weaknesses: Part of the problem in having so few notable names is the potential problems they may face when the checking gets tight in the playoffs. Opposing teams will surely aim to shutdown Goodrow, and if they’re successful in neutralizing his offensive abilities, the Battalion don’t have many players to lean on when they need a goal. They do have depth in scoring, but Goodrow’s the only player to score more than 20 goals this season.

X-factor: For all the potshots the Battalion took in terms of fan support, there is a loyal and dedicated following for the Battalion – it was just never big enough. Those fans will miss their team, and would love nothing more than a deep playoff run as an appropriate sendoff. Battalion alumni have surfaced at the rink recently. This team wants to give their fans one last memorable moment before departing for North Bay, which should add a level of intrigue to the playoff run.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.