All year long, the London Knights talked about how, despite a guaranteed berth in the 2014 Memorial Cup Tournament as the host squad, the team wanted to enter the tournament through the proverbial front door. When the Guelph Storm slammed that door shut with a 4-1 series victory on April 11th, it changed the way the team needed to approach the finals.
With their first live action coming in the form of an intra-squad game on May 9th against a team comprised of Knights’ rookies and former players, the squad was working on getting back in game shape. But, according to Bo Horvat, when it comes to experience, the Knights should know what they’re up against.
“It’ll be my third Memorial Cup, so if you don’t know what to expect by now, something must be wrong,” Horvat explained.
Though they have plenty of experience in the playoffs, assistant coach Dylan Hunter explained that they brought in some expertise from someone who has been through a similar layoff.
“We talk to a lot of guys. We have Danny Dupont here from Shawinigan who was in a similar situation,” he said. “We had a schedule of three days on, one day off, we tried to simulate games on certain days and had harder practices on others.
“It’s just like we said during the summer — you can play as much hockey as you want during the summer, when it comes to that first game it’s a little different. That’s why we want to get this game going — we want to get their mojo going a little bit and get used to the refs calling penalties and the flow of the game.”
There are positives and negatives that come with a one-month layoff, Hunter said. The Knights next real game is May 16th, when they open the Memorial Cup against the Val d'Or Foreurs.
“Obviously there’s the advantage of getting their bumps and bruises cleaned up and getting some guys some rest. The past two years the guys have played 20-some games each year to get to the Memorial Cup, so sometimes it leaves you a little bit hollow when you get there,” said Hunter. “There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but in the end it’s anyone’s game once that round-robin starts.
While acknowledging the fact that the Knights wanted to go in the front door, Hunter said there are some positives for a team that’s been to back-to-back Memorial Cups as the OHL champion.
“If you have to look for a positive in getting beat out, it’s that you have time for a Zach Bell to come close and start getting healthy; it’s getting those guys who have played 200-some games over the past two years a little rest,” he said. “They know how hard it is to win an OHL championship, so to get that little break and not have some guys who were playing 30 minutes a game for weeks — it does help in that aspect. The disadvantage is that those [other teams] have been battling for the past three weeks, so they’re used to that battle level and we have to get there right away.”
One player who could have done with a little less rest was netminder Anthony Stolarz, who missed over a month with an ugly skate cut on the back of his leg. He said he sees the value of the layoff, but admitted to having a bit too much rest himself.
“I mean, I’d like to say it’s a yes and no. Yes, it’s always good to get that rest and it’s good to recuperate your body and get that energy,” he said. “But for me, having lost a month during the World Juniors, then being off six weeks again after my injury — it’s kind of tough. Obviously, we’d still like to be playing games, but we’ll take it the way it is, go out there and be ready.”
Stolarz added that the effects of the layoff may be offset by the squad’s recent finals experience.
“I think the experience is going to be key. We’re going to know how to handle the media; we’re going to know how to handle the pressures that come with the Memorial Cup,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who have been through that. And we’ve got three new [overagers] who are here, they’re eager to win it because it’s their last year in the league.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Game Five loss, Horvat explained that the team took some time to get away from the rink. But they’ve slowly ramped up play, with an eye on the opening
“Most of us went back home. Some of them went away on a mini-vacation,” he said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing a few days on, one day off, training every day in the gym, doing yoga, skating really hard, and trying to get prepared for the coming week.
“For today it’s just going back to a regular routine. We’re doing everything like it was a regular game day all day today. We’re just trying to get back into our regular routine, get back into the swing of things, and prepare for next week. I think the hardest part is that we haven’t played a game in a while. We’ve been doing a lot of game situations in practice. We’ve been working on our positioning and our D-zone, and working on different systems, so I think we should be fine that way.”
No amount of exhibition action, though, is going to fully prepare the team for next week’s touranment.
“No. It’s the biggest tournament of the year so you’re never going to get that kind of emotion unless you’re actually playing, so it’s more just working on our systems, getting the bugs out,” Hunter added. “We’re not too concerned with them being up for [the Memorial Cup] — these guys have been working hard all year, so we know they’re going to be up for it. It’s just about dusting the rust off a little bit and working on the little things, transitions into the O-zone and going from five-on-four to even strength.”
Hunter explained that what may be the biggest challenge is dealing with the lack of “feel” one gets from in-game action.
“A lot of it is more special teams. It’s one of those things where the power play is more momentum based. You see good teams that have bad power plays, so it’s one of those things where you can work on it, but you really need to feel what the other team is doing. It’s more read-and-react to what the penalty-killing unit is doing,” Hunter said. “Same with the penalty kill, you’ve got to get that timing down, blocking shots. And you’ve got to get that feeling back of losing your legs but still needing to be out there for 30 seconds and being able to think. That’s the most difficult part of having the time off — those special teams. We’ve been working a lot on them, so hopefully we won’t have that snag once we get started.
“We’re going to go back to what we do usually — more of our regular practices where we have our regular drills and our flows. Just stuff like that instead of the bags and the one-on-one battles. We’re kind of winding down that way and let guys get back into their routine.”
The Knights said the fact that the city is gearing up for the event is helping to get them prepared and excited for the tournament.
“We’re all really excited. You see the tents starting to go up outside and you hear about how many people they think are going to be coming… even tonight we have a bunch of people coming to watch the alumni play us in this [intra-squad] game,” Horvat said. “All the guys are starting to get geared up and we’re looking forward to a great week of hockey.”
Stolarz said there’s no added pressure playing in front of the hometown fans. “I think that’s going to be a benefit for us. You’re not going to an unfamiliar environment, we’re playing in front of our home crowd — they’re going to be loud for us, they’re going to be cheering for us, we’re going to have the whole city behind us,” he said. “I think we’re going to use that as motivation, we’re going to try to go out there and build off of the crowd.”
Hunter was a member of London’s 2005 team that won the Memorial Cup the first time the team hosted the tournament. On the ice, he said, it’s just another game, but Hunter admitted there’s something special about playing in front of your fans.
“On the ice, that aspect, there’s no difference. Obviously you get to play in your own building, which is huge when you have your own fans. But the basic game situations? It’s no different — you’re just in another hockey game,” Hunter added. “To have it in your hometown is something special. It’s something you want to do for your fans who have supported you all year. These guys, they love the city and they love the team. A lot of them have been here for three years and they’ve come down to the one-yard line, but haven’t been able to punch it through, yet. So it’s almost kind of a redemption thing for a lot of these guys.”
And it is hoped that the sense of redemption will help give the Knights the boost they need to come out flying after an extended layover.
“You win the OHL championship and you say it’s a great year; you lose in the Mem Cup and it’s always something missing,” he said. “We want to finish the year with a bang and get that final win.”
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