The London Knights raised the J. Ross Robertson Cup for the second time in franchise history Friday night after defeating the Niagara IceDogs by a score of 2-1 in Game 5 of the championship series. Before meeting the IceDogs in the final, they took down the Windsor Spitfires in four games, disposed of the Saginaw Spirit in six, and swept the Kitchener Rangers.
They bought in, and it paid off beautifully.
The London Knights clinched the 2011-12 OHL title in typical Hunter hockey fashion Friday night, drudging their way to a 2-1 victory in front of 9,046 animated fans at the John Labatt Centre.
“Right through the playoffs, I thought we played stingy,” head coach/general manager/co-owner Mark Hunter said, at a loss for words, inside the Knights dressing room moments after capturing the franchise’s second OHL title.
The club’s only other league banner is from the 2005 Memorial Cup-winning seasons — five years after Mark and brother Dale took over Knights ownership.
“I’m not going to point out individuals, but Watson is a well-deserved MVP,” Hunter added.
Much like in games 1 through 4 of the series — and the entire post-season, for that matter — Knights players threw their limbs in front of the majority of Niagara IceDogs scoring chances. They routinely outbattled their foes on the way to loose pucks, too, leaving no ounce of energy unused.
Playoff MVP Austin Watson opened the scoring midway through Game 5, with perennial sniper Seth Griffith scoring the eventual game-winner 1:48 into the final frame. Tom Kuhnhackl potted the lone goal for the IceDogs.
“I got the chance to come here, to a good team,” St. Thomas native Greg McKegg said, pausing at every new word, “and to seal the deal tonight is pretty awesome.”
London’s ability to roll four forward lines throughout a 49-18-0-1 regular season continued in what turned out to be a 19-game OHL post-season. Their reliance on the likes of the Rupert twins, and shot-blocking machine Watson, grew as the year wore on.
“They proved themselves all year, and did a heck of a job this series against Niagara’s top line,” assistant coach/general manager Misha Donskov said of the trio. “They played their hearts out and are one of the main reasons why we were so successful.”
Goaltender Michael Houser, who picked up league outstanding player honours prior to the series, made 26 saves in the clincher. His counterpart, Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin, turned away 20.
It was the second league title by a major London sports team this year, as the Lightning claimed the National Basketball League of Canada championship back in March.
The Knights will be the OHL’s representative at the 2012 Memorial Cup, which kicks off May 18 in Shawinigan, Que. Two of their three opponents — the Saint John Sea Dogs and host Cataractes — have already been decided.
BY THE NUMBERS — How the Knights won the OHL title in 19 games:
23 — points from rookie defenceman Olli Maatta
607 — total saves from stud netminder Michael Houser
4 — game-winning goals from playmaker Vlad Namestnikov
10-0 — record when leading after the 1st period
9-1 — record on home ice