It was an eon ago in junior hockey time — about one month — when the London Knights appeared to be the lone OHL team which presented a case for being a world-beater at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. The aura emanating from the afterglow of London coming up one goal shy of winning it all last spring and then one win shy of tying the all-time major junior record for consecutive wins pretty much chloroformed any critic into submission: okay, so London is going to win the OHL three years in a row.
The Knights are still going to finish first overall, but last weekend's string of 4-3 losses to the Sarnia Sting, Owen Sound Attack and surging Kitchener Rangers meant they have thrice had three-game slides. As you might recall, London never lost three in a row during its 2011-12 championship season; it took until March, when they were winding down and trying to stay healthy for the playoffs, before they even lost consecutive games. Now they seem to be the most hard-luck team in the league at this writing. With high profile, comes heavy scrutiny; like the Montreal Canadiens of yore, London just isn't allowed to have a slump. Or is there more to it?
From Ryan Pyette (@RyanatLFPress):
They have lost seven of 12 games since the Hunters opted to stand pat and not jeopardize their 2014 Memorial Cup bid. The Rangers, who have Tobias Rieder and Matt Puempel humming again, have won 11 of 15 since GM and coach Steve Spott went out and got some more help.
“You don’t want to give a team an inch,” London assistant coach Dylan Hunter said. “You don’t want them going into playoffs thinking they found a chink in our armour. We tell our guys, the last 15 games, teams are going to play hard, especially against us.
“We’ve got to bring that intensity level up a bit.”
At the same time, they have to simmer down out there. They’re the top team in the league and Memorial Cup finalists. They’re not supposed to get rattled.
But [leading scorer and Boston Bruins prospect Seth] Griffith was sent to the showers with a 10-minute misconduct after taking a third-period high-sticking penalty on which the Rangers bagged the winner.
... The Hunters love and trust the Rupert twins like sons, but for the second game in a row, one of them took a needless penalty. Ryan [Rupert] will be suspended at least two games for a spearing match on Kitchener’s Derek Schoenmakers, who didn’t end up injured from the jab. (London Free Press)
The current Knights' streak probably is not as abject as the one they had immediately following the Jan. 10 trade deadline, when they could produce only two goals each game during losses to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Saginaw Spirit (in one of their first games since trading Team USA contributor Vincent Trocheck, a candidate for the OHL's most outstanding player honour) and a 16-skater Windsor Spitfires outfit. It could be brushed off since, well, it's a long season and three games out of 68 is a very small sample. Some regression is inevitable following a 24-game streak. But it's happened again, albeit against some very quality opposition within the OHL's Death Star of a Western Conference.
The Kitchener Rangers also (emphasis on) appear to be validating coach-GM Steve Spott's "we'll treat this like a Memorial Cup" proclamation that was delivered unprompted prior to the season. The Rangers are rolling, even amid uncertainty about when/if U.S. world junior championship goaltending hero John Gibson is going to play again this season and without No. 1 centre Radek Faksa, the Dallas Stars first-rounder.
At the deadline, the Rangers and Knights each added a 19-year-old defenceman from the Sudbury Wolves. Frank Corrado, who nearly made Team Canada and attended Vancouver Canucks training camp, has 10 points and is plus-18 through 14 games. On Sunday, the Knights' add, San Jose Sharks pick Justin Sefton, was listed on the third pairing as London tried to create more depth.
From Josh Brown (@BrownRecord):
The Rangers own the best record — 11-2-0-2 — in the OHL’s western conference since pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal Jan. 8 that brought [Toronto Maple Leafs pick Josh] Leivo, goalie Joel Vienneau, defenceman Frank Corrado and winger Derek Schoenmakers to Kitchener.
Spott says the additions helped ignited the team’s veterans and sent a message to the club that they were serious about winning. The move also changed the dynamic in the dressing room.
“We brought in guys who are not only great on the ice but off the ice are great leaders,” he said. “They’re talking and they’re energized.
“We had great kids here, but they were very quiet and these guys give us a real good shot of adrenaline.” (Waterloo Record)
The prevailing conclusion is that in a sport played by teenagers, do not make any conclusions in February, really. It's tempting to say this is the Curse of Kevin Baillie, since London GM Mark Hunter jettisoned his overage goalie in January to clear space for the "still very raw" Philadelphia Flyers second-rounder Anthony Stolarz and fellow 18-year-old Jake Patterson. That was part of the scheme to have a formidable 19-year-old goalie, or even a tandem, for an anticipated Memorial Cup year.
If it was not for the Knights goaltending being just okay of late (and the Flyers goalie connection jokes are not lost on me), one could probably dismiss the press-the-panic-button chatter. It's quite possible the ever-experimental Hunters, coach Dale and GM Mark, both lovers of line-tweaking, are taking advantage of having a big lead over the Barrie Colts for first overall. But the big takeaway is that this Knights crew has hinted if only in small doses that it can go awry for more than one game. That could bear heavily on its playoff prospects.
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.