The marquees outside the Dow Event Centre all read London vs Saginaw: Western Conference Showdown.
On the second-to-last night of the Ontario Hockey League’s regular season, the top two teams in the west met, each with a chance to secure first place heading into the 2019 post-season.
And in the end, that’s exactly what the London Knights did as they beat the Spirit 5-2.
The clubs came into the game from very different places. Saginaw was riding a 9-0-1-1 wave and had a sell-out crowd behind them.
London had lost three games in a row and were trying to rediscover the groove that they had been in for much of the regular season.
Big games can sometimes help you do that and this one did.
“It’s the guys out there on the ice for us. I’m proud of them,” said London assistant coach Dylan Hunter. “We had a tough 10-game stretch and we were coming in on short rest and they played an excellent game.”
The Knights put on a surgical performance, weathering an early storm from the Spirit and even surviving giving up the first goal of the game.
“Jordan Kooy was really strong for us,” added Hunter. “We stayed out of the [penalty] box and we just kept playing the right way.”
London captain Evan Bouchard tied the game on a power play after Cole Perfetti had put Saginaw in front.
A second power play goal by Kevin Hancock made it 2-1 at 3:05 of the second period, but D.J. Busdeker brought the Spirit back when he scored short-handed at 9:23.
Hancock’s second of the game and 52nd of the year before the end of the middle period put the Knights ahead to stay.
Paul Cotter tipped in a Joey Keane shot in the third period and Nathan Dunkley added an empty-netter to clinch the conference title in the west for the first time since 2013.
The Knights outshot the Spirit 43-37 and went 2-for-4 on the power play. London’s penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4.
London will play the Windsor Spitfires in the opening round of the playoffs. Game 1 will be Friday, March 22 at 7:30 at Budweiser Gardens.
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.*
The playoff matchups so far
#1 London vs #8 Windsor
London won the season series between the teams 5-1 and outscored Windsor 31-15 in the six meetings. The lone Spitfires win was a 2-0 shutout at the hands of Michael DiPietro on October 4 before he was traded to the Ottawa 67’s.
#2 Saginaw vs #7 Sarnia
The teams each won three of the six games against each other this season. The Spirit earned victories in two of the last three they played.
The Sting have the least amount of OHL experience on their roster among playoff teams with an average of 2.4 years per player. They led the league in short-handed goals and played in all kinds of high-scoring games during the regular season.
#3 Sault Ste. Marie vs #6 Owen Sound
These two teams are meeting in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Each of them has won one of those series.
The biggest question heading in may surround Greyhounds goalie Matthew Villalta. He left the game between Sault Ste. Marie and London on March 15 with a lower body injury and did not return. He had stretched back to his left to make a save and reports during the game said he jammed his left leg against the post. The Greyhounds won both regular season meetings between the teams.
#4 Guelph vs #5 Kitchener
Even with the powerful play the Storm have shown since the trade deadline (17-6-3), the Rangers have beaten them three of the last four times the two teams have met. Overall, Guelph is 4-3-1 against Kitchener in 2018-19. Kitchener’s record against the Storm reads as 4-4.
#1 Ottawa vs #8 Hamilton
The Ottawa 67s will finish with the OHL’s best regular season record and home ice advantage against anyone they play. Their first task is to knock off the defending Ontario Hockey League champions. Ottawa went 5-0 against the Bulldogs in the regular season.
The playoffs. London will play the Windsor Spitfires for the fifth time in the last 11 seasons.