London-Erie: 3 Keys To Winning The OHL West

With just two games left in the regular season, the London Knights and Erie Otters were tied in the standings for first overall. Fittingly, their last two games were against each other, one in each of the other’s home building. It did not disappoint.

London held off Erie in the first game 4-3, setting up a winner-take-all game back in Erie the next night. In a hard-fought battle, Erie got the last laugh by defeating London 4-2, thus giving the Otters the OHL regular season crown and the top seed in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, these two bitter rivals square off for the right to play in the OHL finals. This is the series that everyone wanted to see.

Their regular season series couldn’t have been more even. Each team won three games, while the Knights held a 19-18 goal advantage in the six games. Each team won once on the road.

So who wins this best-of-seven? Here are three keys that will decide the winner.

London Knights, Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs, OHL
Can Mitch Marner find a way to beat the Erie Otters four times? (Photo courtesy of the London Knights)

Top-Heavy Top Lines

The Knights and Otters boast two of the best top lines in all of junior hockey. The Knights trio of Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner, and Christian Dvorak were the leading scoring trio in the league, with Dvorak winning the goal scoring title. The Otters counter with the line of Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, and Taylor Raddysh. DeBrincat finished second in goals.

Given earlier match-ups in the season, these two lines will likely not play against each other.

The Otters usually put defensive specialist Kyle Pettit out against Marner when possible. On occasion, they put Jake Marchment’s line out there. Regardless of which line it is, both can win faceoffs and make the Knights play defense. The Otters will see about getting Strome’s line out against either Aaron Berisha’s line or Owen MacDonald’s line. Curious to see how Kris Knoblauch will matchup early in the series.

For the Knights, it usually doesn’t matter who the opposition puts out against their top line. But in this case, the Otters are the best defensive team the Knights will see. With the first two games on the road, London won’t get last change. Erie will decide who they want to put out there. In a potential seven-game series, that will go a long way in determining who wins.

In the previous games, whoever won the power-play battle usually won the game. Same holds true here. Whoever wins special teams will win this series. Both top lines use their top guns on the power play. The Otters must especially watch at the end of their power plays, when Marner and Dvorak are out killing penalties. They’ll look to counter short-handed when the Otters are at the end of their shift.

Max Jones of the London Knights
Can London overcome the loss of Max Jones? (courtesy London Knights)

Other Contributors

While the top lines get the attention, everyone else is just as important. Whichever team gets secondary scoring will have the upper hand. London is without one of their better players for the first six games (if necessary) of this series.

Max Jones received a 12-game suspension back in the first round against Owen Sound for a high, dangerous hit. The Knights will miss his offense and penalty killing in this series. Who will step up for London in his absence?

The Otters second line of Kyle Maksimovich, Jake Marchment, and Vanya Lodnia has been relatively quiet in the playoffs. They need to take their game to another level, especially if they have to play against Marner’s line.

Both teams had questions about their bottom-six throughout the season in terms of production. It’s very likely that a game or two comes down to who scores the unexpected goal. With two teams so evenly matched, this is worth watching. Who answers the call?

Erie Otters, Kris Knobloch, OHL
Can Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch find a way to get other contributions from outside the top three? (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

Protecting The Net

The offense of both teams get the attention. But you are also looking at the two best defensive teams in the league. In goal, Devin Williams and Tyler Parsons have been outstanding. In Williams’ case, he is the reason the Otters improved dramatically on the defensive end. Both goalies will have extreme pressure on them given who is attacking. Who will protect their cage better?

Pressure extends to the defensemen on both sides. For London, their top four of Chris Martenet, Victor Mete, Olli Juolevi, and Jacob Graves will face their stiffest test. The Otters top four of Travis Dermott, Erik Cernak, Darren Raddysh, and TJ Fergus face the same kind of challenge. Goals should come at a premium given how solid both units are.

I would expect Dermott and Cernak to see a healthy dose of Marner’s line. Likewise, I expect Martenet and Mete to see a bunch of Strome’s line. The more successful pair will go a long way in determining a winner.

Dylan Strome
I give a very slight edge to Dylan Strome and the Otters, as they own home ice. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

Who Wins?

Now that’s a good question. These two teams are about as even as you can get, which will make this one fantastic series. I do give a very slight edge on offense to London, while I give a slight defensive edge to Erie. To me, this comes down to special teams and goaltending. Whoever stays out of the penalty box will win this series.

I do ultimately think Erie wins. Missing Max Jones is huge for London given the opponent. If this goes the distance and he comes back in a game seven, London can definitely win a game seven on the road. I do think Erie steals a game in London, thus making this a shorter series.

Someone already thinks London will win. Tkachuk told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press that “they’re better.”

Regardless of who wins, the fans ultimately win. They wanted this series. They got this series. May the best team win.