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Rest is best for series-sweeping London Knights as big battles loom

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The London Knights don’t care if they face the Saginaw Spirit or Soo Greyhounds in the OHL Western conference final next week.

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The London Knights don’t care if they face the Saginaw Spirit or Soo Greyhounds in the OHL Western conference final next week.

They’re just putting their feet up now and hoping the two heavyweights slug it out for seven games, overtime included.

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“Get them worn down and see them battle,” London centre Sam O’Reilly said with a grin. “We’ll be all rested up and good to go.”

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That down time becomes a critical component the further teams go in the playoffs, especially ones that play at the pace and intensity of the Knights. They have bought into the physical element and all the pitfalls that come with it, including injury risk and collisions gone wrong leading to suspension in the cases of Kaleb Lawrence and the recently returned O’Reilly.

“I think we played that way all season,” London forward Max McCue said. “We’re just a hard team to play against. We have a lot of guys in the lineup who like to play with grit and bite. We’re not going to stop that way just because sometimes we get penalized for it or whatever happens.

“We’re going to continue playing our way and when we get (Lawrence) back, then it’ll be great.”

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William Nicholl leaps onto the back of Sam Dickinson as the London Knights celebrate their OHL playoff series-clinching victory over the Kitchener Rangers at the Auditorium in Kitchener on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

Mark and Dale Hunter have been down this road many times before. They learned from their OHL final loss to Peterborough last year and made sure the current group had the same relentless edge that made the Petes such a formidable foe.

The Knights kept two veteran goaltenders in case one got hurt again like Brett Brochu. They built a rock-solid defence and made sure the forward group was versatile and deep enough to withstand setbacks like an injury to leading goal-scorer Ruslan Gazizov and this week’s five-game suspension to Lawrence.

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In his absence, Jacob Julien lit up Kitchener offensively again and O’Reilly returned Thursday to shore up any gap down the middle.

“It took a bit to get my legs going again,” O’Reilly said, “but after the first period, it was fine. It was a good win and great to be back. You just keep working out there when you lose a player like Kaleb. We’ll work around him for right now until he comes back.”

There have been a couple of times so far the Knights were threatened with being stretched beyond the minimum four-game sweep. In the first round against Flint, the Firebirds forced Game 3 into overtime.

But the Knights dominated the extra session and Landon Sim eventually scored the winner.

The second was more of a mental battle of getting over the blow of the Lawrence suspension Thursday. Kitchener had been lobbying for it and, despite being thin on the blue-line, still had enough skill to make a major push to save their season.

The Knights scored 39 seconds into the first period and totally dominated the opening few minutes. Their pressure and cycling was so determined Rangers fans cheered an icing after it relieved some of that heat.

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It could be argued Flint’s physicality and neutral zone trap was actually more of a hurdle for London than trying to keep Kitchener from forcing turnovers and rush chances.

“We knew going in our game (against the Rangers) was going to be playing hard, finishing our checks, playing well defensively and trying to capitalize on our opportunities,” McCue said. “We did a good job of that. We knew there was a lot going on social media about this series.

“We tried to stay focused on the goal of winning hockey games and let the outside noise be just that.”

They haven’t escaped unscathed, but the ability to close out series quickly could prove a major factor in a potential title run.

“We have some bumps and bruises on some guys,” McCue said, “so we’ll get some much-needed rest and be ready for the next matchup.”

rpyette@postmedia.com
@RyanatLFPress

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