SASKATOON, Sask. — The London Knights, for myriad reasons, have the same powers of regeneration as the title character in Doctor Who.
They will play in a third successive MasterCard Memorial Cup next season, with one picturing the fans of 19 other Ontario Hockey League teams chilling the champagne, 1972 Miami Dolphins-style. Indulging in some sparkling glass of schadenfreude is fine — Tall Poppy syndrome, eh — so long as it's chased with the acknowledgement of how tough the Knights are to get rid off. Led by Pittsburgh Penguins defence prospect Scott Harrington, they fought off elimination four times this spring before finally falling 2-1 to the Portland Winterhawks. Prior to Friday's semi, teams playing the second leg of back-to-back games this week in Saskatoon had been outscored by an aggregate 19-5. Conversely, the Knights took it right down to the triple zeroes against the high-skilled Winterhawks before running out of chances.
For the second year in a row, Harrington was the first Knight out of the room to speak to reporters after a season-ending 2-1 loss. In 2012, after the overtime loss to Shawinigan in the Memorial Cup final, it symbolized that the captaincy would be handed from Montreal Canadiens prospect Jarred Tinordi to his defence partner. Friday, it was a reminder that while the Knights are a perennial power, some players leave an irreplaceable legacy.
"We can hold our heads high knowing we left it all on the ice," said Harrington, who unlike most players, came to the mix zone already changed into suit and tie, allowing him to proceed directly to the Credit Union Centre exit and the Knights' bus. "It's the same, regardless if we lose in overtime or at the buzzer in the semifinal.
"We had a couple broken sticks on great opportunities to score near the end of the game," the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect added. "We understand that's how it goes."
London lived on the margins throughout its season. They earned their chances to do so, of course. There was sophomore centre Bo Horvat's buzzer-beater against the Barrie Colts in Game 7 of the OHL final. Their 24-game win streak in November and December included a record 19-round shootout win and several comebacks to win late in the third period or extra time.
That made Friday's outcome fittingly hard to take and easy to reconcile simultaneously. It was a carbon copy of last season's Shawinigan-London championship game. Each team's top-end forwards had little space to manoeuvre even during the warmup — "we talked about it beforehand, 'you might have to win this game 1-0,' " Winterhawks coach Travis Green said.
London got the lead on a Max Domi power-play goal midway through the second. Two minutes later, with Brendan Leipsic pestering goalie Jake Patterson, a Tyler Wotherspoon point shot redirected off a defender and into the net. London seemed to leaking oil by that point, but it still took until 8:28 of the third before Portland ace Ty Rattie untied the game with his fourth goal of the tourney.
'At least we went out in a fight'
Olli Määtta and Domi each had grade-A chances down the stretch against Portland's Mac Carruth. Griffith, after Patterson had been pulled for the extra attacker, became perhaps the first Knight to rob Rattie of a sure goal by blocking a rocket ticketed for the empty net. The last act was a reminder of how tough London goes down.
"Character always comes out at the end," coach Dale Hunter said. "I can't say enough about the players giving it right to the end. You saw it so many times this year, we came back at the end, but their goalie made the saves."
"It'd be a totally different story if we'd let up halfway through the game, or when Rattie scored," added the 20-year-old Griffith, who will likely turn pro with the Boston Bruins organization in 2013-14. "We came back and had chances.
"If we had to lose a game, at least we went out in a fight."
That ties back to what the Hunters, coach Dale and GM Mark Hunter, have done to make the Knights major junior hockey's answer to Google. Mark Hunter goes through a vehicle every two years burning up highways to scout players, making sure to amass of stockpile of ready, willing and able talent that calls to mind the loaded deck Sam Pollock had back in the day with the 1970s Montreal Canadiens.
The epitaph for this season might be that the Hunters' competitiveness had to fit in with the plans to host the 2014 Memorial Cup. Thanks to either that, or perhaps a reluctance to pay a mint at midseason to add best available 19-year-old — like they did in 2012 by getting gritty centre Austin Watson from the Peterbourgh Petes — might have held London back. Their only January pickups were defencemen Dakota Mermis and Justin Sefton and the 6-foot-6 goalie Stolarz. The former was fifth on the depth chart on the blueline on Friday and the latter two did not play.
"We didn't make a lot of moves at the deadline because we knew we had a good team that wanted to win," Dale Hunter said. "We just got beat by another good team tonight."
Only seven Knights are 19-year-olds or overages, so the talk about becoming the first OHL team to three-peat since the 1978-80 Peterborough Petes will likely start before the end of this sentence. Seventeen players will be moving into their age-18 or -19 seasons, with Alex Broadhurst also a promising overage scorer. Määtta, forwards Josh Anderson, Chris Tierney, Ryan Rupert and Matt Rupert, will all be moving into their age-19 years. Domi, Horvat and 6-foot-5 defender Nikita Zadorov, et al., are one year behind them.
That being said, between Harrington and overage utilityman Tyler Ferry, a lot of leadership is leaving.
"Harry, our captain, he's been the soul of our team," Dale Hunter said. "He'll step into the National Hockey League next year, I'll bet."
'Sucks to see him go like this'
In Harrington's words, the 9-2 loss to the Halifax Mooseheads pinned on them on Tuesday "could have been overwhelming in a short tournament." All told, London left with only two victories over the out-of-its-depth host, the Saskatoon Blades. What the standings don't show is the Knights, true to form, were a tough out, when logic dictated that they were on borrowed time.
Rattie, who roomed with Harrington, on Team Canada, couldn't savour being in the final without keeping his foe in his thoughts.
"I didn't see him come off the ice," Rattie said. "Top defensive defenceman in the CHL. It sucks to see him go like this. Two Memorial Cups, two world juniors. He's going to be in the NHL, if not next year, then very soon."
One can only presume leaving without junior hockey's ultimate prizes must sting for Harrington on some level, since the even-keeled Kingstonian wasn't betraying that in front of the cameras on Friday. There's the solace that he became a pro across four seasons in London. Also, just as Tinordi and Watson did, his leadership will rub off on his younger teammates.
"It's been a quick four years," Scott Harrington said. "I've enjoyed every day playing in London. I don't wish that I'd played anywhere else."
Perish the thought, but some other Knights will be saying that next spring, perhaps with the Memorial Cup in hand.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to email@example.com.