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London Knights (1) vs. Saginaw Spirit (5) Playoff Preview

 

Regular Season Series Results (London wins 4-0)

September 23rd – Saginaw 0 @ London 8
December 2nd – Saginaw 0 @ London 6
January 14th – London 5 @ Saginaw 4
January 28th – London 6 @ Saginaw 3

Playoff Tracker: The Road Here
  • The London Knights defeated the eighth seeded Windsor Spitfires in a four-game sweep. 
  • The Saginaw Spirit defeated the fourth seeded Sarnia Sting in an up-and-down six-game series.



Through the majority of the regular season, the London Knights’ squad was the elite team of the Ontario Hockey League.  As with most junior aged players, London experienced a stretch of hockey that had them struggling to score goals and while the Knights were dissecting their problems, another team – ahem, Saginaw, was rolling along quite nicely. In the final weeks of regular season play, the Saginaw Spirit were one of the Ontario Hockey League’s hottest teams finishing with six wins and two loses in the month of March forcing their way into the fifth seed in the Western Conference standings.  Saginaw’s season was rejuvenated when ownership decided to clean house back in December firing General Manager and Head Coach Todd Watson and replacing him with the experienced Greg Gilbert.  The change resulted in the Saginaw Spirit going 22-16 with their new bench boss after starting the season a dismal 11-17-2. 


The Battle of Playoff Statistics
  • Goals For:                   Knights (17)               vs.       Spirit (25)      
  • Goals Against:            Knights (7)                 vs.       Spirit (17)
  • Penalty Minutes:        Knights (74)               vs.       Spirit (81)
  • Power Play:                Knights (30.5%; 4th) vs.       Spirit (19.2%; 6th)
  • Penalty Kill:               Knights (85.7%; 5th)  vs.       Spirit (82.8%; 10th)
  • Top Playoff Scorer:    Griffith (6 points)       vs.       Saad (12th)

The London Knights swept the season series with four wins outscoring the Spirit 25-7 in those contests including two shutouts at the John Labatt Centre in London.  Despite their regular season dominance over the Saginaw Spirit, London is well aware of the dangers this team can present on the ice especially after Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect Brandon Saad, more or less, single-handedly knocked off the Sarnia Sting in six games in the opening series.  Saad, playing with overage forwards Michael Fine and Joshua Shalla (Nashville Predators prospect), combined for 11 of Saginaw’s 24 goals in the Sarnia series.  Brandon Saad’s dominance was downright filthy as he bullied his way around the ice untouched and was also a key contributor on the defensive side of the puck. 

It is no secret that London’s main priority will be to shut down the Saad line and with a much larger and more experienced defense core than Sarnia, the Knights should have more success containing Saad – but it will not be easy. Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins), Jared Tinordi (Montreal Canadiens) and Finnish sensation Olli Määttä will be leaned on heavily by the defense coaching staff to limit Saginaw’s top line.  Last week, Mark Hunter and his coaching staff were spotted scouting the Saginaw- Sarnia series as they waited for their next opponents and it should come as no surprise that the Knights will emphasize physicality in hopes of wearing down the opposition.

Saginaw will travel 300 kilometers directly east to the JLC Friday night and they will be looking to score their first goal in London’s this season, a task that has proved difficult for many teams this season. If Saginaw is able to penetrate London’s zone their offensive attack needs to solve Knights’ goaltender Michael Houser.  The overage netminder has been one of the OHL’s most consistent and valuable players this season eluding confidence in the crease.  Houser enters the Western Conference semi-final series ranked second in goals against (1.52) and first in save percentage (.947).  The Pennsylvanian will need to remain sharp to halt the red hot Spirit attack. 

Two hundred feet at the opposite end of the rink sits OHL sophomore puck-stopper Jake Paterson ready to challenge the offensive assault of the London Knights.  In Paterson’s first OHL playoff series, the freshman was nothing short of clutch coming up with timely highlight-reel saves against Sarnia’s potent forwards.  Overshadowed by teammate Brandon Saad’s opening series performance, Paterson was equally as valuable in their success over Sarnia.  Paterson was able to shutdown the likes of Ryan Spooner, Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk and built confidence doing so along the way.  The Saginaw Spirit will require another stellar performance from the native of Mississauga to advance passed the Western Conference number one seeded team.

Keys to Success:

London Knights (1)

Offensively, the underrated Seth Griffith and draft-eligible defenseman Olli Määttä led the way scoring six and five points, respectively, versus the Windsor Spitfires roster in their opening series.  London features a deep offensive attack with four lines capable of sniping goals.  Coach Mark Hunter has the luxury of calling on a number of individuals and can roll with the hottest player as Greg McKegg (Maple Leafs), Vladislav Namestnikov (Lightning), Austin Watson (Predators) and Jared Knight (Bruins) offer plenty of experience.  Rookies Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Josh Anderson and have shown that they belong in this league and can contribute offensively as well.  The Rupert twins (Ryan and Matt), Chris Tierney, and Andreas Athanasiou round out the offensive options for London as these four look to impress NHL scouts as they look to impress scouts for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Max Domi (9P), Seth Griffith (8P) and Vladislav Namestnikov (7P) have been a nightmare for the Saginaw Spirit this season leading the way in scoring.

Defensively, London should look to implement a strong forecheck and physical game against the Saginaw Spirit in an attempt to deplete a relatively shallow roster.  Saginaw tends to lean on only two forward lines and a handful of defenseman leaving Hunter with an opportunity to exploit this tendency.


Saginaw Spirit (5)

The success of the Spirit lies with the effectiveness of the SFS (Shalla-Fine-Saad) line.  Saginaw will need other forwards to step-up and contribute offensively to match the depth of London’s offensive attack. Vincent Trocheck (Florida Panthers) will need to step up his game a notch to provide scoring chances as Saginaw will need more than one line clicking to defeat the London Knights.  Likewise, Greg Gilbert will be seeking production from youngsters Justin Kea and Eric Locke to provide secondary scoring as the SFS line can only carry this team so far.  Garret Ross will be called upon to ramp up his agitating game and provide grit to the forward group.  With Saginaw’s Ross and London’s Rupert twins, it would not be farfetched to see these three players exchanging “friendly” hockey banter throughout the series. Saginaw is a much different team in April than they were earlier in the season when these teams faced off but the lack of scoring in games against the Knights has to be a bit concerning.  Joshua Shalla leads the team in the season series with three goals and five points.

Key Matchups:
Michael Houser vs. Jake Paterson
Saginaw will need Paterson to be better than “good” and Houser cannot falter now especially against Saginaw – a team entering the series playing their best hockey. 

Brandon Saad vs. London Defense
Can Mark Hunter and his staff find a way to contain, or even slow down, this big powerful winger? Saad has had limited success (2 assists in 3 games) when facing the London Knights this season and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his recent OHL dominance.

Rookie Sensation vs. Saginaw Defense
In four games this season, rookie Max Domi has recorded 7 goals and 9 points versus the Saginaw Spirit in his first season leading all London Knights’ skaters. 

Saginaw Spirit vs. JLC
Being shut out twice and recording two losses at the John Labatt Centre this season does not provide much confidence for Saginaw entering game one.  Can the Saginaw Spirit earn their first win versus the Western Conference’s top seeded team? 





Head-to-Head Regular Season Player Statistics

London Knights
Max Domi:                             7G-2A-9P
Seth Griffith:                          5G-3A-8P
Vladislav Namestnikov:         0G-7A-7P
Ryan Rupert:                          3G-3A-6P
Jared Knight:                          1G-5A-6P
Greg McKegg:                        1G-4A-5P

Saginaw Spirit
Josh Shalla:                            3G-2A-5P
Michael Fine:                         1G-1A-2p
Brandon Saad:                        0G-2A-2P
Vincent Trocheck:                  0G-2A-2P
Eric Locke:                             1G-0A-1P


Western Conference Semi-Final Series Schedule

Game One:    @ London                   Friday, April 6 @ 7:00 pm
Game Two:     @ Saginaw                  Sunday, April 8 @ 7:11 pm
Game Three:   @ London                   Monday, April 9 @ 7:00 pm
Game Four:     @ Saginaw                  Wednesday, April 11 @ 7:11 pm
Game Five:     @ London                   Friday, April 13 @ 7:30 pm
Game Six:       @ Saginaw                  Saturday, April 14 @ 7:11 pm
Game Seven:  @ London                   Monday, April 16 @ 7:00 pm

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