John Tavares is entering the final phase of his storied junior hockey career.
The forward picked to go first overall in the NHL draft in June will be the main storyline of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs for as long as his London Knights are in the post-season. The Knights (47-16-1) look to be in for a long haul.
London concludes the OHL regular season Saturday. The playoffs start next Thursday. The Erie Otters are a possible first-round opponent for Tavares and the Knights.
Tavares has won almost every individual award there is in junior hockey during his four-year career, as well as two gold medals with Canada's junior team. The 18-year-old from Oakville, Ont., who was dealt from Oshawa to London in January, wants a club title before the curtain falls on his junior career.
"It's what I came into this league to do," Tavares said Thursday. "That's part of the reason I came to London and obviously I want to be a guy who is counted on to be able to do that where ever I go.
"If it is my last go-around, I want to go out with a championship."
A year ago at this time, Tavares's fuel tank was low, so he geared his off-season training last summer towards keeping that tank topped up after the gruelling world junior hockey championships.
A couple of shoulder injuries since his trade to London have been a blessing in disguise as it gave the MVP and leading goalscorer at this year's world junior tournament a few days of rest.
"I'm feeling really good actually," Tavares said. "My second shoulder injury gave me a four-day layoff and helped me recover a bit and give me my second wind for the second part of the season here.
"I trained a lot harder during the summer to be in better shape for the last 10 games before playoff time. I feel as fresh as I have most of the season."
Tavares heads into Friday's home game against Saginaw with an OHL-leading 58 goals and 46 assists in 55 games, as well as a league record 215 career goals. His hat trick Sunday in a 4-3 win over the Windsor Spitfires pushed him past Peter Lee, who scored 213 for Ottawa from 1971 to 1976.
While Tavares could sit out Saturday's game in Sault Ste. Marie and rest for the playoffs, he thinks he may make the trip.
"I am considering playing Saturday because I haven't been to the Soo yet this year," he said. "I think it would be good for me to play, even if I don't play as much.
"I've got to talk to the coaching staff and we'll do what's best for Saturday."
The Ontario, Western and Quebec major junior leagues conclude their regular seasons this weekend and open their respective post-seasons March 19 or 20. The eventual league champions advance to the Memorial Cup from May 15 to 23 in Rimouski, Que.
The Windsor Spitfires, ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League, London, Belleville Bulls and Brampton Battalion are the clubs to watch in the OHL. The No. 2 Calgary Hitmen and No. 3 Vancouver Giants are the favourites to win the WHL.
The Drummondville Voltigeurs at No. 4, Shawinigan Cataractes and Quebec Remparts are front-runners in the QMJHL.
The Rimouski Oceanic are already in the Memorial Cup as the host club. Head coach Clement Jodoin just wants his team to stay sound in body through their last regular-season games against Quebec on Friday and Shawinigan on Sunday. He estimates they've lost 225 man games to injury this season.
Rimouski (42-23-1) currently ranks sixth in the QMJHL and opens the post-season March 20 against Chicoutimi.
"We've got to stay healthy," Jodoin said from Rimouski. "We would like to start the playoffs with everybody in the lineup, but we're going to miss one or two players."
Despite their injury woes, Rimouski is 20-4 since the trade deadline Jan. 8.
The acquisition of 20-year-old defencemen Maxime Ouimet and Marc-Andre Bourdon from Baie-Comeau and Rouyn-Noranda respectively gave Rimouski experience and maturity on the back end as both were captains of their clubs.
The Oceanic also acquired forward Logan MacMillan from Halifax and goaltender Matt Dopud from Rouyn-Noranda as insurance in case starter Max Gougeon goes down.
The recent return of scorers Keven Veilleux and Olivier Fortier after three months on the injury shelf helped contribute to a 17-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to March 6. But now Bourdon and another defenceman Gleason Fournier are injured.
"We knew with the addition of the new players we were a much better hockey team," Jodoin said. "I'm not saying it's easier, but we have more depth."
Jodoin has felt the Memorial Cup hype beginning to ramp up at Le Colisee de Rimouski as the post-season approaches.
"For the last three weeks, we've felt it in the building. The fans are into it," he said.