The Erie Otters knocked Cinderella out on Sunday, but not before 5000 plus fans had their fill of an exciting playoff game and run. A month ago it seemed that London might not even qualify for the playoffs, and for them to get to the second round seemed impossible. But they did just that, through blood and guts and some great performances from key players, sending the top ranked Plymouth Whalers home and giving Erie everything they could handle with the exception of game 5, an Erie walk in the park.
How did the Knights do it? Lets start with Rick Nash. Where he goes in the draft might get decided today, as some teams might be leaning towards defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, others might want this skilled winger. He will go no lower than second, and his strong playoffs, coupled with the fact that the laid back Bouwmeester has yet to taste playoff action should help in the intangibles section. Nash led London in scoring in the playoffs and was a force with the puck. He was doing a bit too much diving, but he did draw several penalties and he does receive numerous hooks on every shift. He was hitting, scoring, and playing well in most aspects of the game. He needs to learn to shift gears sometimes and let the defence back up and use them as a screen. He also has a habit of getting in too deep, he likes to stay behind the net, even when he has two linemates in the corner fighting for the puck, this can create odd man rushes for the opposition, as well if London gets the puck he is not in a scoring position.
One other knock is his power play positioning. He plays the offwing in the offensive end, but rarely is in a position for a one-timer, and he rushes his passes, often causing turnovers. The Knights need to work on their 5-3 power play especially with the number of chances they had to win games with the two man advantage and they didn’t capitalize. Nash has to get more involved in those situations with better positioning and better passes, especially to the point, where Dennis Wideman has a booming shot and if set up for a one-timer, will score plenty. These are minor knocks on Nash, as he elevated his game and was a big reason why Plymouth is out. A lot of their stars didn’t have the drive to the net attitude needed to win, and were far too comfortable playing on the perimeter. Much ado was made last season about how badly Stephen Weiss outplayed Jason Spezza, well this year, undrafted 19 year old center Mike Stathopoulos took it to Weiss, who was a force, but 5 on 5, stayed to the outside far too much. The Whalers had plenty of forwards who didn’t want to get their hands dirty, unless it was from them diving, forwards Karl Stewart and Damien Surma did plenty of that.
The Knights undrafted players shone, in net Chris Houle was a Christmas fill in, who came from Alberta with a reputation of doing everything right except stop the puck. Well this massive 19 year old took the ball and ran with it, and stopped lots of pucks. He took the number one job and stoned the Whalers night in and night out. Erie had trouble with him as well, but did finally burst his bubble of invincibility. The only thing he really needs to work on is his puckhandling, he doesn’t get out very well on dump-ins and his shooting ability is weak. He will be a strong candidate for an overage position unless his strong play gets him a pro contract.
As mentioned earlier, Stathopoulos, the Knights leading regular season scorer, drew the tough assignments of Weiss and Boyes, two high profile first round picks. That led to his points being down, as was focusing on defence. He will be another guy the Knights hope to have back as an overage player. Dennis Wideman was stellar for a weak defence corps, seeing plenty of minutes. If Nash is back next year, look for Wideman to lead the OHL in defenceman scoring. He loves to hit in open ice, plays his man well down low and adjusts well for his lack of size. It will be interesting to see if this 18 year old is taken in the later rounds in this years draft.
Sixteen year old Corey Perry caught the attention of scouts during the regular season with his heads up play and smooth hands. He struggled in the playoffs, recording no points vs Plymouth as he looked very tired throughout the playoff run. He needs to fill out and work on his skating, as playing night in and night out against two very fast teams, he looked like he was skating in quicksand and was often knocked off the puck very easily. He made a great flip pass to set up a goal in game 6, and in overtime made a beautiful pass that almost ended the game. If his strength and skating catch up to his vision and hands, he will be a first rounder in 2003.
The Avalanche draftees Danny Bois and Charlie Stephens were physical forces and chipped in key goals throughout the run. This was it for overager Stephens, who will be trying to earn a spot in the Colorado system next fall. He has all the tools, now he just has to put them to use on a consistent basis, as he will be up against much stronger competition at the next level. Bois, who describes himself as “a power forward who goes up and down the wing hitting everything in sight” did just that over the last month. His game didn’t progress offensively in the season, but a strong playoffs holds a lot of promise for this likeable winger for next season.
All in all, it was an exciting year for the Knights, who went far considering their lack of speed and talent, and competed very hard without one European card filled, and Leaf draftee Jan Chovan was the backup goalie from December on. They had a number of 19 year old rookies on the team, and a decent corps of 17 and 18 year olds who gained a lot of valuable experience. Toss in the thrill of playing in a brand new arena next year, leaves the Knight fans with a summer of anticipation.