2016 Memorial Cup: Opponents only hope may be to contain, not stop, London Knights’ trio

By Chris Roberts
Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner - London Knights - 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup

Photo: London Knights forwards Christian Dvorak (#10) and Mitch Marner (#93) along with linemate Matthew Tkachuk continued their offensive tear in the opening game of the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament (courtesy of Rob Wallator/CHL Images)

 

 

There is no line in the CHL that has been more dangerous than the London Knights’ troublesome trio of Mitch Marner (TOR), Christian Dvorak (ARI) and Matthew Tkachuk (2016).

That isn’t an opinion, it is fact. And they have the numbers to back it up: the linemates combined for 129 points in just 18 OHL playoff games, and each player topped 100 points in the regular season.

During Friday’s game against the Red Deer Rebels, the trio answered any questions as to whether they could continue their torrid offensive pace on a national stage at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup. Led by a five-point effort from Marner, the Knights beat the Rebels 6-2. Dvorak had four points in the win, while Tkachuk had one assist.

“We just have to move the puck like we always do, get open and look for each other,” said Marner of the line’s strategy at the Memorial Cup. “When we do that it’s easy to play.”

And it shows. The last time the line was held off the scoresheet was in a 2-0 loss against the Owen Sound Attack in the first round of the OHL playoffs. After rebounding against Owen Sound, the Knights rattled off 12 straight wins to secure the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL’s championship trophy.

Marner was limited to fewer than two points just twice in those 12 wins, Dvorak failed to score in just three games and Tkachuk was held pointless just once.

On Monday morning, prior to the Knights game against the Brandon Wheat Kings, Marner was quick to give credit to the rest of his team.

“Our second and third line and our whole defensive core and our goalie (make things easier),” he noted. “They really dictate a game for us and can steal a game for us easily. They’ve done it all year long and they’re going to eventually get hot in this tournament.”

But it is obvious the other 17 skaters wearing London colors aren’t the primary concern of opposing coaches. Wheat Kings General Manager and Head Coach Kelly McCrimmon noted it is unlikely for a team to completely shut them down.

“I don’t know that anybody has been able to do that,” he said. “I think it’s about trying to limit their chances. They’re great players and they’re going to get their opportunities.”

Team discipline can certainly help in limiting the line’s scoring chances. But they’ve proven to be just as dangerous at even strength. Only 16 of their combined 50 goals in the playoffs came with the man advantage. Marner, who is more of a set-up man on the power play, scored 13 of his 16 goals at even strength.

“I’m sure everyone says the same thing before they play them: it’s about taking away their time and space. But that’s easier said than done,” said McCrimmon, noting he planned to use two different lines in attempting to shut down the trio due to their extended shifts.

While the rate the three players have been performing at is impressive, it is not all that surprising. Marner became a household name north of the border last season after a 126-point campaign earned him the fourth overall selection by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2015 NHL Draft. He is an incredibly skilled, if small, forward whose biggest asset is his vision and creativity. But he was far from a one-man show in 2014-15; Dvorak, who was selected 58th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, played alongside Marner for most of the year and recorded 109 points in 66 games. It was a breakout season for the American center.

Tkachuk, meanwhile, arrived in London this season as a perfect complement to both Marner and Dvorak. Projected to be a Top-10 pick in this June’s NHL Draft, Tkachuk brings both size and skill to the line, allowing both players the space they need to create offensively. Of course, he is able to finish as well; Tkachuk had 30 goals in the regular season before posting a team-leading 20 in the OHL playoffs.

Their performance in the opening game of the Memorial Cup was noteworthy, but will be quickly forgotten if the trio can’t lead the Knights to Sunday’s championship game. Playing on the big stage isn’t a worry, at least for Marner, who has been in the spotlight for his whole career and will continue to be in the media-heavy Toronto market.

“Kind of everywhere I’ve been there has been a lot of pressure, it just helps you out and it’s a lot of fun to play in pressure moments. I’ve been lucky.”

Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7