The number on goalie Jake Patterson's back was hugely symbolic. Thirty-five. As in the number of days before the London Knights' next game — the opener of the Memorial Cup on May 16.
For the sixth season in a row, the Cup hosts will enter through the much-maligned, oft-loathed 'back door' after the Knights' 5-4 loss Friday to the high-octane, healthier Guelph Storm, whose five-game Western Conference semifinal win assured the OHL of a new champion this spring. Some might try to make a case that the long stretch since a Cup host actually won its league title embodies a problem for the Canadian Hockey League, but if the CHL doesn't mind while it's wading in its deeper revenue stream, then well, life's too short to inveigh against the trend.
The Storm, which pulled out of bidding to host once it became apparent London with its 9,046-seat arena was a slam-dunk preferred destination, went ahead for good late in the second period after Winnipeg Jets prospect Scott Kosmachuk banked a shot in off Patterson. That was just the last in a series of unfortunate events that encumbered London in the series. The combo of a stacked Midwest Division all playing in the same division and the league's playoff format meant a pair of the OHL's three 100-points teams met in the second round instead of, say, the conference final or championship. London also had star Max Domi playing hurt, goalie Anthony Stolarz suspended for stick-swinging and its two most seasoned defenceman out of action (Zach Bell with a broken fibula, Brady Austin with mononucleosis). Concurrently, though, the Storm persevered despite the fact its nominee for the OHL most outstanding player award, Brock McGinn, was also suspended.
Those are the extenuating circumstances, but some schadenfreude should be indulged. The Knights, on some level, probably know that is the cross to bear for being a dominant franchise. Being off for five weeks might not even be a fail; it's a credit to the Storm and a mark against the league's playoff format.
Guelph will face Erie in the Western Conference final, beginning April 17.
Two seasons ago, London won its way into the Memorial Cup and lost the final in overtime to the host Shawinigan Cataractes, which had a month off after also losing a second-round series. Any grumbling from the time about having a team that didn't even reach its league semifinal hoist the Memorial Cup as Canada's major junior hockey champion after beating London in a best-of-one final looks rather shortsighted.
The CHL has found that the best business model for the Memorial Cup is to run a 10-day, four-team tournament with a host team in order to help with ticket sales. It's far from perfect, and makes the tournament less meritocratic than many would ideally prefer. When it comes to hosts who went out of the playoffs early over the past two decades, the Knights actually rank somewhere in the middle.
Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Regina Pats (WHL)
Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Guelph Storm (OHL)
Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
Ousted in round-robin
London Knights (OHL)
Ottawa 67's (OHL)
Won Memorial Cup
Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Won Memorial Cup
Rimouski Océanic (QMJHL)
Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Won Memorial Cup
Many an early exiting host team has come back completely renewed for the Memorial Cup. The tournament is a sprint compared to the Tough Mudder course that is league playoffs. It would not be a shock if this is buoys London's hopes of winning the CHL's biggest prize.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.