LONDON, Ont. - The London Knights face a largely unfamiliar foe as they try to repeat as Ontario Hockey League champions.
London hosts the Barrie Colts on Friday in the opening game of the best-of-seven OHL final. The two teams only faced off twice in the regular season, and both rosters went through significant changes since their last meeting.
The Knights won both encounters with the Colts, but the games were hard-fought. London needed a shootout for a 3-2 win in Barrie on Oct. 20 before winning in London 5-3 in late November.
"Both games were really close and both teams have made changes since then, especially at the deadline," said Colts defenceman Ryan O'Connor via a telephone conference on Wednesday.
The Knights, for example added goaltender Anthony Stolarz in early January. The Philadelphia Flyers' second-round pick in 2012 went 13-5 with a 2.29 goals-against average to close the season. He has improved his numbers in the playoffs, posting a GAA of 2.26. His arrival came after London compiled a 24-game winning streak from Nov. 2 to Dec. 31 with goalies Jake Patterson and Kevin Baillie each winning a dozen games.
Meanwhile, Barrie added Mitchell Theoret at the Jan. 10 deadline from Niagara and Jake Dotchin from Owen Sound. While Dotchin has four games remaining in a five-game suspension, Theoret's importance has been paramount. He is tied for the OHL lead in post-season goals with 10.
For London, the key Colt to shut down will be Mark Scheifele, who has eight goals and 19 assists in 15 playoff outings. Scheifele, who led Canada with five goals at the 2013 world junior championship, also collected 79 points in just 45 regular-season games with Barrie.
"You can easily see that Mark Scheifele is a special player and that's why twice he has been in Winnipeg (with Jets organization) for quite awhile," said London team president and head coach Dale Hunter. "We have to be aware of him at all times, the entire line of (Scheifele), Zach Hall and Anthony Camara."
The Knights have the luxury of three extra days of rest since winning the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as Western Conference champions after downing Plymouth in five games. Barrie didn't earn the Bobby Orr Trophy as Eastern champs until Monday when they defeated Belleville 3-1 in Game 7 of the conference final.
Despite Barrie's quicker turnaround, O'Connor said there are no tired players in the Colts dressing room.
"We have to carry the momentum we have from our last series," he said.
As defending champions, the Knights may have an edge in playoff experience.
"Our club's young guys can lean on the players who are used to playing this late in the season," says Knights captain Scott Harrington, who added that slowing the Colts' power play will be integral.
"Barrie has a lot of lethal forwards and a couple of defencemen that can put the puck in the net as well.
"Both teams have highly skilled forwards so it's going to come down to execution and shutting down their forwards, and goaltending is also very important in the playoffs."
"He has brought both an element of speed and skill to our team – added to our depth in that area,"
London's top producer has been Max Domi with 87 points in the regular season and 10 goals and 15 assists in the playoffs. He is the current OHL player of the week with four goals and 10 points in the last three games against Plymouth.
Alex Broadhurst and Chris Tierney have teamed with Domi to be the top line for the Knights, but the strength up front continues with Seth Griffith, Bo Horvat, Ryan Rupert (twin brother Matt is currently injured), and a surprising four goals by rookie Remi Elie.
With a blue-line corps of Harrington and Olli Maatta (Both Pittsburgh draftees), plus Nikita Zadorov and Tommy Hughes (signed by the Rangers as a free agent), London appears to have depth to play well in all three zones.
"These are both skilled teams," Hunter said. "The fans will appreciate all the great players in this series and the number of guys who will be in the NHL someday."
Hawerchuk knows his team will require at least one road win to claim the OHL crown and the J Ross Robertson Cup, along with the invitation to compete in the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon, May 17-26.
"We have to be able to go into the other team’s building and win," Hawerchuk said. "(Hunter) and myself both have a lot of experience we can draw upon, like playing in a Game 7, but this hockey has also changed a lot from when we played and you have to change with it."
Hawerchuk competed in the NHL against both Dale Hunter and his younger brother, Knights general manager Mark Hunter. However, Hawerchuk — a NHL Hall-of-Famer — was a teammate of Dale's older brother Dave in 1988-89 in Winnipeg.
"(Dale Hunter) was a gritty player with a great pro career," Hawerchuk said.
Besides the NHL parallel between the coaches, the series also features two of the three clubs (along with Windsor) vying to host the 2014 Memorial Cup.
"We've all made our bid presentations, so that decision is now in the hands of the (selection) committee," Dale Hunter said. "We're here now to play hockey."
Besides winning the OHL title last year before losing to Shawinigan in the Memorial Cup final, London also won both titles in 2005.
Barrie's only OHL title was in 2000. The Colts went on to the Memorial Cup final, where they lost to Rimouski.