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NHL Prospects

Erie-London rivalry intense as ever in final stretch of OHL season

October 15, 2014. A faceoff between Dylan Strome (19) of the Erie Otters and Max Domi (16) of the London Knights during a game between the London Knights and the Erie Otters played at Budweiser Gardens in London Ontario, Canada. The Knights went on to win the game 4-3 in a shootout.

In the 2014-15 Ontario Hockey League season, the London Knights went from a re-tooling team in transition to a contender in a matter of months. Led by captain Max Domi and his linemates Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner, the Knights finished third with 84 points in the Western Conference behind their division rival Erie Otters. The Otters, meanwhile, were led by Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome, a center duo unmatched by any other team in the Canadian Hockey League, and they finished second with 104 points.

When the two faced each other in the second round of the 2015 OHL playoffs, London was without Max Domi and Mitch Marner for most of the series, resulting in a resounding sweep by Erie.

The competition is a lot closer this season, though, as the two teams are currently tied with 97 points in this final stretch of the season. There’s a lot more at stake than most fans realize; because the Knights and the Otters are in the same division (Midwest), they cannot rank #1 and #2 in the conference, despite being neck-and-neck for the top.

Instead, the West Division’s leading team – currently the Sarnia Sting with a mere 81 points – holds the no. 2 spot, leaving the Midwest powerhouses to battle it out for no. 1.

How Erie and London got to this point is fairly interesting. For starters, Erie lost Connor McDavid – the heart and soul of the team – to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, while London gained a bunch of recruits such as Matt Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi and Max Jones, among others. Three Knights – Christian Dvorak, Mitch Marner and Matt Tkachuk – have hit the 100-point mark already this season, and the team’s overall scoring depth is much improved since last season.

The Knights have gone 9-1 in their past 10 games as opposed to the Otters going 7-3 in that time, so their dominant play has afforded them the chance to catch up with their superior counterparts. For the majority of the season, the Kitchener Rangers (a Midwest Division rival) were the Knights’ biggest threat; they have effectively pulled away completely from the Rangers, now 10 points ahead of them (and able to clinch at least second in the division with one more win).

They sort of made that clear with their impressive 8-2 victory over the Rangers on Tuesday. And now they’ll look to claim first in the league for themselves.

“If you’re not first, you’re last,” London overager Aaron Berisha told London Free Press, after scoring four goals against the Rangers. “It’s a cheeky (phrase) everyone says, but in my last year, it’s true. There would be no better feeling than to finish first and with home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

“You come in, you have fun and that’s really what it’s all about. That’s what it should be about. Last year, I came here and everyone said this was a rebuilding team. But we finished third. It’s the same thing this year. We have young guys, but we’re doing well.”

The Otters are slumping at the wrong time, especially considering the fact that they are coming off a 4-2 loss at home to the lowly Niagara IceDogs. Giving up two points to a team so beneath them is indicative of a weakness, and that weakness is just what the Knights are hoping for.

Last week, London downed Erie 6-1, exposing many of the Otters’ flaws and essentially dominating the play through all 60 minutes. It was almost impossible for the Otters to keep up, and it may have a lot to do with the fact that the tides have turned. While the Knights relied on a top-three (Marner, Dvorak and Domi) last year, the Otters were rolling four lines; this year, the Otters are relying mostly on Strome, Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh, but the Knights have incredible depth.

As if it were planned to be an epic finish to the season, the two teams will have a home-and-home on March 18th (in London) and 19th (in Erie) to conclude their respective 2015-16 campaigns. Those are sure to be fierce games, with each vying for a very important playoff spot before season’s end.

Let’s just hope we get to see another postseason series between these two.

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