Sun May 27 12:30am EDT
SHAWINIGAN, Que. — The host Cataractes seem to be peaking — and four days of waiting means there is no clue if the London Knights have plateaued.
The most unpredictable MasterCard Memorial Cup in relevant memory, go figure, comes down to an odd matchup. Many observers are leaning toward the team which just played three games in a row to get into the final, since Shawinigan is at home and just scored 13 goals in two games. The Knights have been waiting and waiting, trying not to get squirrelly, since last playing Tuesday. Now they have to get up for the final (7 p.m. ET/4 p.m., BTN livechat).
"To be honest, I wish we were playing tonight," Knights wing Jared Knights said on Saturday. "It's been a lot of sitting around in the hotel and doing nothing. We came out flat the first time we played and they took it to us [winning 6-2 on May 20]. They took it to us and got the crowd behind them. We can't be doing that. Once that crowd gets buzzing, it's a new game."
The Knights knew Shawinigan's month-long break to ramp up for the tournament negated the fatigue factor that normally accrues from being forced to play the tiebreaker game.
"I knew it wouldn't be," Knights captain Jarred Tinordi. "If I was in their position, I wouldn't count that as a factor either. If you can't get up for going for a Memorial Cup, then you're not human."
It's not known which Shawinigan line Austin Watson and Vladislav Namestnikov and their respective linemates will be assigned to. London has last change. Watson was on the 2009 Windsor Spitfires, the only other team to play the tiebreaker game and capture the Memorial Cup.
"We'd rather keep it at only one team having done it," said Watson, whose team will have at lot going for it on Sunday.
Defence and shot blocking — This just in: the Knights block more shots than any team in junior hockey. That 6-2 loss to Shawinigan seven days marked the only time their system has let them down during the past two months. So it's a question of whether the fired-up Cataractes, with an offence led by Michael Chaput (11 points up front) and playmaking defenders Morgan Ellis and Brandon Gormley, can break them down again.
Know this much: there's no doubting the Knights have been proven to contest each and every puck battle. That's why they went to Shawinigan over a Niagara IceDogs team that had a dozen NHL draft picks. It's also why they finished first in the round-robin instead of Saint John.
"It comes down to the littlest detail," Tinordi said. "If you don't get the puck out, it can make a huge difference. Us as a team, we've dealt with pretty good offences before."
The Knights' best bet might be to try to get the Centre Bionest crowd out of the game early. Grinding down the pace and preventing chances is a means to that end.
"They're going to be loud, obnoxious, banging on the glass, the way they've been crazy for the last 10 days," Knight said.
Watson will be pivotal for his shot-blocking and faceoff-taking. Thanks to Chaput, the Cataractes are 82-for-132 on the dot in the past two games, a gaudy 62.1 per cent success rate. Of course, a regression is more likely there since it's hard to sustain that rate for long.
Knights defenceman Tommy Hughes injured a foot last Tuesday blocking a shot. He hasn't ruled out playing. London has given seven defencemen playing time during the week.
Tinordi plays traffic cop — Shawinigan's trump card offensively is Ellis or Gormley whipping a wrist shot from the point that's intended to provide a deflection opportunity. It was one of the components the Cataractes honed after going 8-for-53 (15.1 per cent) on the power play in the QMJHL playoffs. Converting only 15.1 per cent of their chances was why they were done after losing to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in Round 2.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Tinordi, his D partner Scott Harrington and the other Knights defencemen will be busy playing bouncer at Club Deflection. The cover charge is countless cross-checks in the lower back, but several Cats goals last Sunday came on tipped shots. London cannot let history repeat itself.
"That's going to be really important, to allow him to see the pucks," Harrington said. "Most of what he sees, he stops. We're going to have to be strong in front, any pucks that are in there, bat them out."
Michael Houser might be due — To the shock of no one, the undrafted goalie was named the CHL goaltender of the year on Saturday. The Memorial Cup really hasn't done much to make NHL teams look bad for not drafting him in 2010 or '11, since he only has an .885 save percentage in three games, obviously a small sample size.
Sunday will mark his 85th game of the season. Houser will have to be on his game.
"He's a good reason we're here," Knights coach-GM Mark Hunter said.
Trap and transition — A big part of London's M.O. is to coax a cough-up from their opponents and strike quickly. Doing so against a team with Shawinigan's speed at this stage of the season will be a challenge.
"I think we've done a good job with that," Knight said. "We've been forcing and turning pucks over. The odd-man rushes they've been generating have been good for us. Shawinigan is well-rehearsed in what they do to break out, but we have a game plan for it."
The Watson-Ryan Rupert-Matt Rupert line will be integral in London's effort to play at its preferred pace.
Opportunism — The odds are likely that Shawinigan, barring a totally flat performance, will probably have more scoring chances.
"They're forechecking hard and they're a real good skating hockey club," Mark Hunter said. "You have to defend them well."
Other teams have outchanced London and ended up wandering around in a daze like that guy who was sure he could succeed with a retail business in that one bad location in your neighborhood. The Knights are known to look like (yeah, look like) they're on their heels, then break out and score. Between Namestnikov, 45-goal scorer Seth Griffith, creative Max Domi and others, they can snipe.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.