After a year away, the London Knights are heading back to the Memorial Cup Tournament to contend for major junior hockey’s ultimate prize. On Wednesday night, alternate captain Christian Dvorak scored the lone goal in a 1-0 Game 4 victory, holding on through 60 minutes in Niagara to clinch the OHL championship that got away from them last year.
The Knights, often referred to as the New York Yankees of Canadian junior hockey for their perennial success (and the fact that they have made it to the playoffs every single year dating back to 2001), will be returning to the round-robin tournament that features one team from each of the three Canadian Hockey League sub-leagues — as well as the host team — for the first time since they hosted it in 2014.
That year, the Knights fell in the OHL semifinals but still took part in the Memorial Cup Tournament because they were hosting it. Still, they failed to make it to the final game of the Memorial Cup tournament. It was a major disappointment, considering the fact that they had won the OHL championship in both 2012 and 2013 but also failed the to win the Memorial Cup in each year. In fact, London made it to overtime of the Memorial Cup Championship game in 2012 but fell to the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes.
Now, the powerhouse club seeks to undo all of its recent shortcomings by finally winning its first Memorial Cup Championship since 2005.
Finishing third in the Western Conference this year on a technicality (they should have finished second, having tied their first-seed division rival Erie Otters with 105 points, but the top-two spots in the conference are reserved for teams in different divisions), London was expected to be the Otters’ toughest challenge in the playoffs. Likewise, the Dylan Strome-led club appeared to be the only team with a remote chance at beating the Knights.
The two met in the third round for an epic Western Conference showdown, though it was hardly that at all. The Knights made quick-work of their rivals, scaring the entire CHL with how easy they made it look. Ironically, London swept their three toughest playoff rivals (Niagara IceDogs, Erie Otters and Kitchener Rangers) but were dealt their only two losses by the lowly Owen Sound Attack in the quarterfinal.
And now, the CHL’s most dominant team is heading into the Memorial Cup Tournament on a 13-game win-streak, rolling four scoring lines, an in-sync defense and riding a hot goaltender. Captain Mitch Marner won the Wayne Gretzky ’99’ Award, being named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016 playoffs after he led all scorers in the playoffs with 44 points (16G, 28A) in 18 games. Marner also led the league in assists, while second-highest point-scorer Matthew Tkachuk led the league with 20 goals. And Dvorak finished right behind Tkachuk’s 40 points with 35 of his own to round-out the top three.
That trio formed what has been London’s top scoring line, clicking and firing on all cylinders all season long. They also have 2016 NHL Draft-eligible prospect Olli Juolevi leading the defense and Tyler Parsons leading all goalies in save percentage (.925) and goals-against average (2.15).
Clear-cut favorites to win it all, wouldn’t you say?
The Knights will face-off in Red Deer, where they will face the host team — the Rebels — as well as (most likely) the Brandon Wheat Kings and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (who will be taking part in their first Memorial Cup Tournament in franchise history). The Wheat Kings and Huskies are each one win away from their respective league championships, so it’s highly likely that those four will be taking part in the round-robin tournament.
But looking ahead even further, expect to see Marner, Tkachuk, Dvorak and co. to bring the Memorial Cup back to the mecca of junior hockey at the end of the month. There is no team quite like the Knights this year, and they are ready to show all of Canada what they are capable of.