Knights in Unusual, Unfriendly Territory as Underdogs

Fresh off their thrilling Game 7 win against the Windsor Spitfires on Tuesday, the London Knights are back in action already, facing down the top-seeded Erie Otters in their Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Western Conference Semifinal.

Beating the Otters will be a tall task, as my colleague Andrew Forbes points out. Led by captain Dylan Strome, Erie posted a league-leading plus-137 goal differential (GD), boasts the league’s top two scorers in Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh, and made CHL history with their fourth straight 50-win season.

A History of Dominance

If this sounds like unusual territory for the Knights, it is. Every OHL fan is familiar with London’s incredible run of dominance under owners Mark and Dale Hunter: two Memorial Cup championships, four OHL titles, and six Hamilton Spectator trophies as the league’s top regular season team.

OHL, London Knights, Memorial Cup
Sights like these have become commonplace for Knights fans. (Terry Wilson/CHL Images)

All of this success has meant the Knights have been infrequent underdogs. In fact, since rising to the top of the OHL pecking order in the 2003-04 season, the Knights have had fewer regular season points than one of their playoff opponents just four times. The Knights lost all four series.

There are two important caveats here. First, upsets have been creeping downward across the league since London’s stretch of dominance began. Second, London did beat Erie in last year’s Western Conference Final in what was officially a No. 3 seed vs. No. 1 seed upset. But London and Erie finished tied in points (with Erie being granted first by virtue of a wins-based tiebreaker), and London soundly bested Erie in goal differential, plus-137 to plus-86. While technically a seeding upset, it’s tough to classify London’s victory over Erie last year as a talent or performance upset.

Charting the Territory

While these caveats might help excuse the Knights’ struggles as underdogs, they don’t improve their chances against a powerhouse Erie squad. In order to better understand the Knights’ recent history as underdogs, let’s take a look back at those four series losses.

2009 Western Conference Final: No. 1 Windsor def. No. 2 London (4-1)

Taylor Hall took on the Knights in the 2009 postseason. (Leon T. Switzer/Total Photo)

In the 2009 playoffs, the Knights took on arguably one of the greatest OHL teams ever in the first of the Spitfires’ back-to-back Memorial Cup-winning squads. Led by standout sophomores Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis, the 2008-09 Spitfires posted a plus-140 goal differential and put up the third-most points in league history. With a balanced attack, a veteran blue line corps, and stalwart goaltender Andrew Engelage, the Spitfires were an exceptionally well-rounded team.

The Knights, though not as deep, boasted the league’s best player in John Tavares as well as top prospect Nazem Kadri and 37-goal scorer Justin Taylor. With a back end anchored by future Washington Capitals star John Carlson and the high-octane Michael Del Zotto, the Knights were a plus-93 GD team.

Memorably, all five games in the series went to overtime, with the Spitfires prevailing in four of them. It was the paradoxical five-game series that was extremely close—indeed, perhaps closer than the teams’ regular-season records might have indicated. Though heartbreaking for Knights fans, the showing was an impressive effort for the rare great team that was nevertheless a clear underdog.

2011 Western Conference Quarterfinal:  No. 1 Owen Sound def. No. 8 London (4-2)

After coming up short again the following season, the Knights retooled in 2010-11, shipping out a trio of key players mid-season. The Knights finished an uncharacteristic last in their division but still made the playoffs, where they faced off against a surprising Attack team led by stars Joey Hishon and Garret Wilson.

The Owen Sound Attack also know how to celebrate. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

For a one-versus-eight matchup, the series was surprisingly close. It’s worth noting that while the 2010-11 Attack would go on to win the league championship that year, they were a much weaker team than the 2008-09 Spitfires, posting a goal differential of just plus-68. The Knights, at a minus-23 GD, were a far inferior opponent, yet put up an admirable fight behind stellar netminder Michael Houser, pushing the Attack to overtime in the series opener and drubbing the Attack twice at home before losing a heartbreaking Game 6, 1-0.

Knights fans might still wonder what could have been had the team managed to push a single goal past Attack goaltender Michael Zador in that final game. But despite the series’ disappointing end, it was clearly a strong showing for a team that was a serious underdog.

2014 Western Conference Semifinal: No. 1 Guelph def. No. 4 London (4-1)

Matt Finn led the 2013-14 Storm to an OHL title, defeating the Knights along the way. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Of the last six Knights seasons, this might be the only one Knights fans are still sore about: it’s the only season in that stretch in which the team elected to hold on to its assets but did not win the OHL title.

The Guelph Storm did, becoming the first team since the 2004-05 Knights to fail to concede more than a single game to any one playoff opponent. The Storm, who boasted three 40-goal scorers, two more 30-goal men, and a deep defensive core led by captain Matt Finn, were a dominant regular season team as well, posting a plus-149 GD.

The Knights were led by top scorer Max Domi and captain Chris Tierney. While London finished just five points behind the Storm in the standings, they lagged behind in goal differential with a still-impressive plus-113. The success of the upstart Erie Otters (106 points) and the league rule whereby the two division winners are given top seeding in a conference relegated the Knights to the No. 4 seed.

The series was a quick one, with London bowing out in five games. And after the team was swept out of the Memorial Cup in their own barn, the 2013-14 Knights became something of a punching bag for London fans. But it’s worth noting that the Storm outscored the Knights by just three goals in the series, and outscored the Storm’s three other playoff opponents in their series by more than a goal per game. While some might remember the 2013-14 Storm more for their Memorial Cup final letdown than the rampant success that preceded it, I see this Knights performance as a disappointing but not underwhelming showing against one of the best OHL teams in recent memory.

2015 Western Conference Semifinal: No. 2 Erie def. No. 3 London (4-0)

In a year with three super-teams and a wide slate of also-rans, the Knights found themselves in the unusual position of being a third-place team selling off at the trade deadline, shipping hulking winger Michael McCarron and over-age defender Dakota Mermis to the front-running Oshawa Generals. This left the Knights as considerable underdogs against an Otters team that added key midseason pieces to a core that included a 2.5 points-per-game Connor McDavid, league scoring leader Dylan Strome, and 50-goal man Alex DeBrincat. London did counter with their own trio of 100-point men in Mitch Marner, Domi, and Christian Dvorak. The Otters boasted a plus-119 GD; the Knights, just +29.

Jake Marchment, OHL, Erie Otters
Jake Marchment provided valuable leadership to the 2014-15 Otters. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

This was the Knights’ worst showing as an underdog in the modern OHL. The Otters swept the series, outscoring the Knights 21-8, with McDavid notching eight goals and 14 points. But while the series was a blowout, it’s worth noting that both Marner and Domi missed time due to illegal hits that earned two Otters a combined 18 games of suspensions. And while the Knights had no answer for McDavid, they weren’t the only ones: McDavid would go on to torch a 110-point Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds team for eight goals and 19 points in six games in the conference finals.

A Pretty Impressive Resume

What does this foray into the modern Knights’ history as an underdog tell us? First, it suggests that, despite their unflattering record, they’ve been a reasonably tough out. Three of four times, the Knights lost to the eventual league champions, and two of those teams were among the best in recent memory. The fourth time, they lost to the OHL finalists. Only the 2015 sweep stands out as an obvious underperformance, and even then, the Marner and Domi injuries could be considered mitigating factors.

While that 2015 Western Conference Semifinal against Erie bears obvious parallels with this year’s matchup, I think the 2014 showdown with Guelph is a better comparison. This year’s Otters team has not been quite as dominant as that Storm team, but neither were this year’s Knights quite as dominant as their 2013-14 predecessor. The Knights are a mild underdog, but not the middling team their No. 4 seeding might suggest. And whoever wins this series will be looking at a tough Western Conference Finals matchup with either the Greyhounds or the Owen Sound Attack.

So take heart, Knights fans: your team isn’t doomed as an underdog. Especially with Tyler Parsons in net.