OHL: London Knights to face Windsor Spitfires in opening round of playoffs

Cole Tymkin of the Knights, being chased by the Spitfire defence, goes for a wraparound on Kari Piiroinen and nearly gets it past the left pad, but then teammate Kevin Hancock put in it for a 2-0 lead during their game against the Spitfires on Friday January 25, 2019. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

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SAGINAW, Mich. – Sometimes, you cruise to first place.

And other years, it’s a bone-jarring and teeth-rattling journey that squeals to an exhilarating halt just a few centimetres from the edge of a cliff.

The Knights shook off their troublesome recent slide at the last possible moment with a confidence-restoring 5-2 victory over the Spirit to clinch top spot in the OHL’s Western Conference before 5,712 Saturday at The Dow Event Center.

They will open the playoffs against familiar foe Windsor Friday, 7:30 p.m. at Budweiser Gardens.

“That’s what we needed to get into playoff mode,” said London captain Evan Bouchard. “Coming off three losses, we needed to bear down on our chances, especially on this good of a goalie (in Ivan Prosvetov) and we did that.”

The Knights’ best players were better than the top guns on the Saginaw side.

Bouchard had a goal, two points and seven shots on net. Prize trade deadline acquisition Kevin Hancock kicked it in to another gear and scored twice, including the winner, to give him 52 goals and 107 points in 70 games.

“It was like a playoff atmosphere in here,” Hancock, the overage centre, said, “and we came out firing. To go through something like this and come out with a win in our final game, it brings a team closer together. We took it like a playoff game.”

The Knights power play looked dangerous, scoring twice. And the penalty kill continues to shine and will finish the regular season as tops in the league.

This is the seventh time in the past 15 years London finished the regular season as the first seed in the West. This one, though, was the most difficult to wrap up with a final-week schedule against fellow heavyweights Saginaw, Sault Ste. Marie and Guelph.

“You want to win it sooner,” Knights coach Dale Hunter said, “but it’s good teams we’re playing and the kids battled hard on the road against a good team to win it. The kids deserve all the credit. They wanted it bad. They stuck together as a team.”

They scored more than three goals in a game for the first time in two weeks. That ended a frustrating six-game drought.

And most importantly, they received stellar netminding from Jordan Kooy, who spent much of the second half of the season as Joseph Raaymakers’ backup – but got a lot of crease time in the past few weeks.

“You need big saves in a game and he came up large,” Hunter said.

Did he do enough to earn the Game 1 playoff start against the Spitfires?

“It’s too early to decide,” Hunter said. “We’re just saying right now he played well and we’ll see what we decide down the road.”

His best stop happened early in tight against Saginaw captain Damian Giroux, who was right at the doorstep. Kooy lunged and beat him with a quick glove.

The Spirit pinned in the Knights for the opening five minutes and London had to kill off a couple of first-period power plays. The Kooy robbery gave them a boost.

“That save really helped the boys push forward,” Kooy said. “We came out with a lot of confidence after that and we pushed. I’m just trying to help the team win every night that I get a chance. Just work hard and have fun at it.

“It shows a lot of heart and character to finish first. I’m very proud of us.”

That was the moment the Knights knew they could put all the recent negative results behind them. They built a lead heading into the third and kept hammering away at Prosvetov and the Spirit defensive scheme.

And they accomplished something even the 2016 Memorial Cup champion Knights weren’t able to do – finish first in the West.

“We didn’t help our goalies out the past couple of games, but to see Kooy play like that was special,” Bouchard said. “We’re excited about the playoffs and to see what we’re able to do.”

STRANGES UP: The Spirit use super-rookie Cole Perfetti with veteran scorers Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod. It’s worked out pretty well for them. Dale Hunter, in turn, put slick-passing Antonio Stranges with Kevin Hancock and Liam Foudy for a spell early.

“It’s near the end of the year where the young kids have had all season to learn the systems,” Hunter said. “When you first start, you don’t give them so much because they came from minor midget and it’s a totally different place here. It’s a game of mistakes. They make them in the National Hockey League. They have to learn from them and they’re making less. That’s why they get more chances to play.”

EVEN KEEL: Say this about the Knights – they never let a few losses in a row overwhelm them. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

If you look at it from Saginaw’s perspective, they had two home games against Sault Ste. Marie and London to grab first place – and lost both of them. Now, they’re the team with a bit of a scoring concern.

“When you go through a rough stretch, you can’t be yelling at them because then it looks like you’re panicking,” London assistant coach Dylan Hunter said. “You can’t be overly positive because we’re obviously not winning. It’s a little bit of both. You’ve got to look at the game before – whose Corsi is a little bit off – and you’ve got to be better the next game. If it’s good, then keep it going. There are positives and negatives and you have to keep on teaching. That’s all you can do.”

Every situation – good or bad – is a chance to learn.

“You’ve got to keep hammering away on it,” Hunter said. “If you sit back and say that it is what it is, it’ll keep happening. If you do something, then you can at least go back in your mind and say it worked or it didn’t. When you know you’re playing pretty well and it’s just not going your way, one win can change it. But it might not, either. It’s unpredictable. That’s what makes junior hockey fun.”

RINKSIDE: The Knights had two defencemen with 50-plus points – Adam Boqvist and Evan Bouchard – for the first time since Danny Syvret (69) and Bryan Rodney (62) in 2004-05 . . . Bouchard recorded his 200th career point on his first-period goal and added an assist in the second, giving him 201 points in 223 regular-season games . . .  The Knights finished 19-10-4-1 on the road this year . . . The Spirit finish up by facing the Greyhounds in Sault Ste. Marie Sunday at 2:07 p.m.  . . . Londoner and Guelph captain Isaac Ratcliffe scored his 50th goal of the season Friday against Erie . . . The Knights have got one regular-season goal from their last two first-round picks – Lucas Rowe, now in Kingston, and Luke Evangelista, who finished with two assists in 27 games . . . The Spirit honoured their three overagers before the game, including Londoner Justin Murray . . . Dennis Desrosiers, a Saginaw hockey legend, the Spirit’s first coach and more recently a radio broadcaster, was feted for his long association with the franchise. He’s calling it quits at the end of the team’s playoff run . . . Red Wings GM Ken Holland took in the game. Knights d-man Alec Regula is Detroit property.

rpyette@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/RyanatLFPress

GAME GLANCE

Knights 5, Spirit 2

London goals: Kevin Hancock (2), Evan Bouchard, Paul Cotter, Nathan Dunkley

Saginaw goals: Cole Perfetti, DJ Busdeker

Next: The Knights open the playoffs Friday against Windsor, 7:30 p.m. at Budweiser Gardens.

Saturday at Dow Event Center

Knights 5, Spirit 2

3 Stars

1. Kevin Hancock, Knights.

2. Jordan Kooy, Knights.

3. Evan Bouchard, Knights.

First period

1. Saginaw, Perfetti 37 (Tippett) 10:09

Batted home own rebound.

2. London. Bouchard 16 (J. Keane, McMichael) 15:45 (pp)

Wrist shot over goalie’s shoulder.

Penalties – Coome, Ldn (tripping) 3:48, Moskal, Ldn (delay of game) 6:10, Wilde, Sag (boarding) 14:02, Regula, Ldn, Tippett, Sag (slashing) 19:03.

Second period

3. London, Hancock 51 (Formenton, Bouchard) 3:05 (pp)

Poked it over the line.

4. Saginaw, Busdeker 15 (Giroux) 9:23 (sh)

Found far corner.

5. London, Hancock 52 (Nelson, Formenton ) 15:36

Backhand in front.

Penalties – Murray, Sag (slashing) 1:43, Davis, Sag (tripping, cross-checking) 5:58, Nelson, Ldn (slashing) 18:33.

Third period

6. London, Cotter 9 (J. Keane) 4:20

Tipped in front.

7. London, Dunkley 23 (Regula) 17:39 (en)

Finished it off.

Penalties – Formenton, Ldn (holding) 5:39, Tymkin, Ldn (10-minute misconduct) 19:57.

Shots on goal by

London            15 12 16—43

Saginaw          15 14 8—37

Goal: London: Kooy (W, 16-8). Saginaw: Prosvetov (L, 36-14).

Power plays (goals-chances): Ldn 2-4. Sag 0-4.

Referees – Mike Hamilton, Darcy Burchell. Linesmen – Geoff Rutherford, Nicholas Bet.

Attendance: 5,712.

OHL PLAYOFFS

London (1) vs. Windsor (8)
Game 1, Fri., March 22 at London – 7:30 p.m.
Game 2, Sun., March 24 at London – 2:00 p.m.
Game 3, Tues., March 26 at Windsor – 7:05 p.m.
Game 4, Thurs., March 28 at Windsor – 7:05 p.m.
Game 5, Fri., March 29 at London – 7:30 p.m.*
Game 6, Sun., March 31 at Windsor – 2:05 p.m.*
Game 7, Tues., April 2 at London – 7:00 p.m.*

(*– if necessary)