This could be the London Knights' last shot at a national title for a few years.
The Knights enter the Ontario Hockey League playoffs knowing they are assured of a spot in the Mastercard Memorial Cup. London will host the CHL championship tournament, which opens on May 16 at Budweiser Gardens.
But with 12 players who are at least 19 years old, the Knights will want to make the most of their remaining time with their current roster. The team is set to lose a number of key players, including over-age defencemen Zach Bell, Brady Austin and Alex Basso.
The Knights open their 2014 playoff run on Friday night when they host the Windsor Spitfires in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarter-final series. Knights assistant coach Jeff Paul said the Knights used the last few games of the regular season to establish good habits heading into the playoffs.
"For the most part you have to make sure that you maintain good habits and play the right way," Paul said following the final game of the regular season. "You definitely don't want to revert back into some bad habits or start any bad habits."
Regardless of what happens in the series, the Knights will make their third straight Memorial Cup appearance, and they'll want to make this one count. London lost to the host Shawinigan Cataractes 2012 final and fell to the Portland Winterhawks in the 2013 semifinal.
The Spitfires enter the series without defencemen Slater Koekkoek and Trevor Murphy. Koekkoek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, is done for the season after having shoulder surgery. Murphy is out with a broken leg.
Prior to those injuries, the Spitfires were in contention for the West Division title, eventually won by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The Guelph Storm, the top seed in the Western Conference, will face the Plymouth Whalers in the opening round.
Guelph was the highest scoring team in the OHL during the regular season with 340 goals. Conversely, the Whalers were among the league's least effective offences with just 200 goals.
The Storm made their big splash in advance of the January trade deadline, acquiring forward Kerby Rychel and defenceman Nick Ebert from the Spitfires, hoping the addition will lead to an extended playoff run.
The other Western Conference quarter-finals include second-seeded Sault Ste. Marie facing seventh-seeded Owen Sound and third-seeded Erie facing sixth-seeded Saginaw. The Spirit will wear black patches on their uniforms throughout the post-season in memory of teammate Terry Trafford, who was found dead of self-inflicted asphyxiation last week.
While the Greyhounds enter the playoffs with a lofty second seed, they are not taking the Attack lightly.
"They're a young rebuilding club that's got good leadership and veteran players that have made a significant impact for them," Greyhounds coach Sheldon Keefe said of the Attack. "They're going to present some challenges for us.
"It's a team we don't know that well seeing that we've only played them twice."
In the Eastern Conference, division rivals Kingston and Peterborough meet in a battle between the third and sixth seeds in the conference. The Frontenacs got off to a hot start to the season but couldn't maintain their play, settling into the third seed behind the Oshawa Generals and North Bay Battalion.
The top-seed Generals will face the Mississauga Steelheads in the first round.
The fourth-seed Barrie Colts take on the Sudbury Wolves.
Sudbury loaded up at the trade deadline by adding forward Radek Faksa from the Kitchener Rangers and defenceman Trevor Carrick from Mississauga, but the Wolves tailed off in the second half of the season and wound up finishing as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Since the deadline, the Wolves won just 11 of 30 games after winning 22 of the previous 38.
The other Eastern Conference series is second-seeded North Bay facing seventh-seeded Niagara.
Niagara gave North Bay trouble in the regular season, winning three of the six matchups between the two clubs.
The first round of the OHL playoffs kick off on Thursday night as the Barrie hosts the Sudbury at the Barrie Molson Centre as the lone game of the night. The seven other quarter-finals open on Friday.