The fog of hype touting the Niagara IceDogs and London Knights as carbon-copy heavyweights might obscure one key detail. Namely, how they arrived.
The Knights, who have home-ice advantage for the Ontario Hockey League final, ran out in front like defenceman Olli Määttä's countryman Lasse Virén in his prime all season in the Western Conference. Despite the mid-season coaching switch when Dale Hunter left for the NHL's Washington Capitals and Mark Hunter added the coaching portfolio to his GM duties, they went wire-to-wire in first and have lost successive games only twice. However, Niagara was more of a gathering storm. They had to wait for their stars to trickle back from NHL training camps and handle the disruption that was goalie Mark Visentin, centres Ryan Strome and Freddie Hamilton and OHL defenceman of the year Dougie Hamilton jetting off to play for Team Canada. All told, since falling below .500 in early November, they have won 51 of their last 64 games, including 12-of-15 in the playoffs. That sets up the series' big question: which of the otherwise evenly matched teams will be a peak performer.
"We stayed the course," says IceDogs coach-GM Marty Williamson, who came close to the J. Ross Robertson Cup when he guided Barrie to the final in 2010. "We knew we had some distractions between world juniors and suspensions and NHL guys not coming back till late. But we believed in this team all along. We weren't in first place [until the new year] but we were still playing good hockey at times. We started to play more consistent in the second half and make a real push. We made a couple of small trades at the deadline and they've improved our team.
"We're a team who's kept getting better as the year's gone on."
London's body of work, the franchise's overall reputation and the Western Conference's five-year championship reign should make it a popular pick. There is so much to like about the Knights from the goal out. Michael Houser was the OHL's outstanding player. Määttä, captain Jarred Tinordi and signed Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Scott Harrington are an enviable big three on the blueline. London is also a legitimate four-line team, boasting high NHL picks such as Vladislav Namestnikov, tough-minded Austin Watson, Jared Knight and Greg McKegg. They are spotting the IceDogs some experience, though. There's really no blueprint for how the Knights might react against a formidable opponent.
"They really don't have any weak players, all four lines and all D pairings are good," Knights winger Seth Griffith says of the IceDogs. "We just have to go in there, work hard, cycle the puck and wait for scoring chances. We can't get too excited and try stuff off the rush that's not there."
Niagara achieved the rare feat of leading the OHL in goals (289) and allowing the fewest (166). They have had a balanced arsenal in the playoffs, with Strome, Freddie Hamilton, and Vancouver Canucks prospect Alex Friesen each counting 21 points. Dougie Hamilton and David Pacan, a big matchup problem at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, have also chipped in more than a point per game apiece.
"They have a high potent offence, they have some real good players," Hunter says. "We're going to have try to match their speed and make sure our tempo's up. It's going to be tough."
Niagara will need to win at least one game in London's John Labatt Centre, where it did prevail during its only regular-season visit. The Knights will have to adapt to the OHL's smallest ice surface when the series shifts to St. Catharines for the even-numbered games. The small ice in Jack Gatecliff Arena can sometimes affect the IceDogs' skilled forwards, but it does let them play at their preferred pace. Williamson said earlier this week that he wants to stay out of a transition game with London.
"I think it makes a small difference," Tinordi says of the small dimensions. "But the intensity's so high in these types of games, it's not that big deal either way."
(1E) Niagara IceDogs (47-18-0-3, 97 points, beat Oshawa 4-2, Brampton 4-0 and Ottawa 4-1) vs. (1W) London Knights (49-18-0-1, 99 pts, beat Windsor 4-0, Saginaw 4-2 and Kitchener 4-0)
Season series: tied 1-1-0-0, with the road team winning each time. Odds favour: Niagara 61 per cent. Prediction: Niagara in 6.
How they match up
Vancouver Canucks draft pick Alex Friesen provides Niagara with adequate secondary scoring …Veteran leadership: The 'Dogs get the edge in this department. They have a 53-2 edge in playoff points from overagers, but keep in mind that (a) London's Brett Cook is only one man and (b) he's a stay-at-home defenceman.
Agozzino, Friesen and Pacan have been tough to contain throughout the playoffs, also tallying 23 in the 15 layoff games. Niagara's core group has also come of age while playing 29 playoff games together across the past two springs. They were built for this season. Thirteen players in their 19-year-old or overage seasons, while NHL top-10 picks Strome and Dougie Hamilton could be in their final month as juniors. If they're not galvanized by now, then you wonder when they ever would be.
The overage factor could be overblown. The Knights never would have got this far without good leaders, obviously. They just happen to be less reliant on older players. Between Tinordi, Watson and McKegg, they have three players who were wearing a captain's C when this season opened. Harrington is also future captain material. Advantage: Niagara.
Goaltending: There's little need to belabour the fact it's a matchup of the past two goaltenders of the year. London's Houser (2.42 goals-average, .919 save percentage) and Niagara's Visentin (2.43, .921) have near-identical numbers in these playoffs.
London Knights' Michael Houser tied an OHL record with 46 wins this season (OHL Image …The goalies' workloads are even the same. Visentin has faced exactly 30 shots per game whereas Houser has handled 29.86. So much for any perception that one team or the other relies more on its goaltender to stay games. Hunter notes it will be "game-to-game who's hotter" in the series and that's probably the best way to simplify it. Advantage: Push.
Special teams: Both IceDogs units (third on the power play at 24.3%, eighth-best penalty kill at 81.4%) are ranked ahead of those of London (sixth at 20.6 and 12th at 77.2) during these playoffs. Keep in mind those sample sizes are rather small and there's no guarantee of it carrying over to a new series. However, the IceDogs certainly have a little more to carry into this round.
Ryan Pyette has described London's specialty units as "living on borrowed time." The power play has got much of the attention when it has foundered, especially when triggerman McKegg sat out the semifinal with a shoulder injury. Advantage: Niagara.
Why Niagara should win: The IceDogs have tightened up their game considerably since January, when Williamson made separate deals for the Dallas Stars' top two picks from last June, adding 6-foot-3 power winger Brett Ritchie and 6-7, 252-pound shutdown defenceman Jamie Oleksiak. Outside of a few occasional lapses, they were so airtight that some teams probably considered a good night just to score twice on Visentin, who posted a league-best 1.99 average. Niagara has built an exceptional foundation on defence and they have so many older forwards that it's rare all of them will go cold or be contained on the same night.
How London could win: The Knights, playing in their first final since 2006, can win in almost any fashion. Houser's capable of stealing games. They check very closely and Hunter is a very crafty coach who can help his team hold it together when it's a tight spot. The Knights are also fairly potent offensively. They scored 272 goals in the regular season, third-most in the league. That's kind of been lost since they scuffled to score in the early part of the playoffs, but there's no question about ability.
"The first two rounds, I don't think we scored as many goals as we wanted to," says Griffith, who has 19 points in the playoffs. "Versus Kitchener, we started to get it going more with the cycle and generating opportunities to score. I think we just stuck more to the game plan, cycled, wore out their D. I think in the first two rounds we got away from it a bit."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.