The Plymouth Whalers were supposed to derail the London Knights, and London needed only one game more than the minimum to advance to the OHL final.
That's spawned the elephant in the room — a thought of whether the Barrie Colts can possibly keep up a championship series that might continue the Western Conference's monopolization of the J. Ross Robertson Cup. One year ago, the Niagara IceDogs looked formidable entering in the final, but London rolled in five games after dropping the opener in double overtime.
The counter-point is that some fissures appeared in the Knights' game during their five-game win over Plymouth. Goalie Anthony Stolarz (2.26 average, .935 save pct. in playoffs) has had an excellent post-season, but the Knights surrendered multi-goal leads in during three of their four wins over the Whalers. Barrie, with the Mark Scheifele-Anthony Camara-Zach Hall first line and supporting talent such as ex-Knight Andreas Athanasiou, overager Steven Beyers and New York Islanders draft pick Mitch Theoret, can certainly be opportunistic. Long preamble short, the Colts have a shot if London doesn't limit Barrie to one-and-done on its offensive attacks.
"That's going to be very important for us," Knights captain Scott Harrington, the stay-at-home defenceman extraordinaire, says of supporting Stolarz. "It's going to be very similar to the Plymouth series where they were stacked up front with three lines that can score. I think Barrie's no different. Last series was a good learning experience for us. It was a hard-fought series with tough games and it prepares us well heading into the next series."
The Knights, of course, can run and gun, but also finish from within five feet of the net as well as anyone in the OHL, at least. Barrie goalie Mathias Niederberger and their back end — which is without its burliest blueliner, 6-foot-3, 222-pound Tampa Bay Lightning Jake Dotchin, who's suspended until Game 5 — probably haven't seen the kind of heat the Knights can apply. Max Domi is second in playoff scoring behind Scheifele, while 19-year-olds Alex Broadhurst and Seth Griffith turned it up against Plymouth.
"Not only are the skilled in their ability to stickhandle and dangle, but they're also willing to go to the dirty areas and find those goals," Colts captain Ryan O'Connor says. "We have to find ways to prevent that, do video again, see what we can pick up on."
Four of the six finals during the Western Conference's run have ended in either four or five games. Fairly or not, the perception is
"I can't say one's stronger than the other," says O'Connor, whose five years in the OHL have been spent with Barrie and the Saginaw Spirit. "There's definitely teams on both sides that are skilled. I think they are two pretty even conferences."
Here is a capsule look at the series, which begins Friday.
(2) Barrie Colts (44-20-2-2, .676; 12-3 playoffs) vs. (1) London Knights (50-13-2-3, .772; 12-2 playoffs)
Odds favour: London 73 per cent.Most statistically probably outcome: London in 5.Prediction: London in 6.
Will Mark Scheifele be able to succeed where other elite scorers have struggled? The Knights and Harrington have hung some skins on their wall when it comes to suppressing top scorers. League scoring champ Vince Trocheck was limited to three points in the Western final. In the 2012 league final, New York Islanders prospect Ryan Strome was limited to two assists and was minus-5 during the Knights' five-game win over Niagara.
Knights two-way centre Bo Horvat outscored Trocheck 5-1 in the last round, while 18-year-old wings Josh Anderson and Ryan Rupert also thrive at driving opponents to distraction. London certainly has something lying in wait for Scheifele when the series starts.
"Their line with Hall and Camara, that's a very good line," Knights coach Dale Hunter says. "With Scheifele there in the middle, we know he's a special player. That's the reason he was in Winnipeg as long as he was. We'll have to play good defence against him and be aware of where he is at all times."
Barrie also had the league's No. 1 regular-season power play and has converted 25 per cent in the playoffs, thanks in part to Aaron Ekblad taking over on the point while O'Connor was serving a 10-game suspension.
"They're pretty lethal," Harrington says. "The biggest thing is stay out of the box."
What is the chief area of concern for each team?
The Colts often get away with Niederberger, who has averaged 32.6 saves per 60 minutes in the post-season, being a human bailout package. London gets to the loose rebound better than anybody.
"We have to clean up our D zone, keep pucks out of our zone," O'Connor says. "Keeping our composure is also important."
Barrie dealt with having O'Connor, a first-pairing defender, away for all or part of its first three series. Hawerchuk is hopeful they can cover for Dotchin being out for a checking-from-behind suspension.
"We've had guys in and out of the lineup, no different than London, all year long," Hawerchuk says. "Good teams have guys who can come in and fill those roles."
London has the speed to match up with Barrie. The Colts, though, are capable of scoring in transition.
"We know they got a lot of skill and speed through the neutral zone and we have to keep them to the outside," Hunter says.
What impact will Ekblad have in the series? Between Barrie's blossoming blueline and London's passel of prospects, namely Domi, Horvat, agile 6-foot-5 defenceman Nikita Zadorov, the series is a scout's delight. Ekblad, with seven goals and 14 points in 15 playoff games, is well ahead of the curve in becoming an offensive threat from his defence spot. Typically, with a 6-foot-3 or 6-4 all-around defenceman, that piece of the puzzle doesn't turn up until after they've been drafted. Ekblad is definitely a potential X-factor, at least to a greater extent than 12-15 other players who also could be.
"He's a big man out there who can skate," Hunter says. "For a young man to do whhat he's doing is a credit to him.
The sophomore defenceman has helped Barrie get by two teams that were deep in 19-year-old forwards, Oshawa and Belleville.
"Sometimes we forget he's 16 but he plays such an all-around game," Hawerchuk says. "He's such a good team guy too. He's definitely elevated his game in the playoffs."
"Even from my standpoint, I look at him and think there is stuff I can learn from him," says the 21-year-old O'Connor.
Will the Colts be able to stay composed? Plymouth, and Kitchener in the second round, were each rated a decent chance to knock off the Knights. Some (present company included) even picked the Whalers. But they couldn't weather the quintessential storms against London, which ultimately played like it knew it would win.
Barrie has been resilient during its run. It twice erased third-period deficits during the first two rounds, saving themselves from having to play an extra game against Kingston and Oshawa. They also treated losing a 3-1 series lead to Belleville like water off a duck's back, controlling the last 50 minutes of play in a Game 7 road win.
"It was the type of the series where either team could have won in five," Hawerchuk says. "I thought we stayed in the moment really well and did a good job of keeping our composure in Game 7."
If they can replicate that resolve, maybe this could go the distance.
Why isn't having a final between two of the bidders for the 2014 Memorial Cup a bigger subplot? The consensus in OHL circles is there are 4,905 reasons — the difference in seating capacity between the London's Budweiser Gardens (9,100) and the Barrie Molson Centre (4,195) — why London is a lock. The Knights also have an excellent returning nucleus for next season.
The OHL will not announce the 2014 host until after the series.
There probably is a passionate plea to be written about how the Memorial Cup, like the world junior championship, is leaving behind small- to medium-sized markets such as Barrie, which has repeatedly bid for the tournament. But that won't change anything.
"It's the players who do it on the ice," Hunter says. "As far as next year, it's in the hands of the committee. We've both made our presentations. We're just here to play hockey."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.