Before they made Game 7 history, there was one last pep talk.
Guelph GM/coach Geore Burnett, a former Knight, pulled aside his two Londoners – Storm captain Isaac Ratcliffe and star centre Nick Suzuki – and told them to decide how they wanted to be viewed this summer.
“With the talent they have in the London organization and the fans they have here, this is what we be coming home to when it’s over,” said Ratcliffe, aJr. Knights grad. “George asked, ‘Do we want to go home being losers or go home being winners?’ It gave us a little motivation, we both gave it our all and luckily, we came out on the good side.”
They were the two best two players in the Storm’s stunning 6-3 rally to eliminate their hometown team before 9,009 Tuesday at Budweiser Gardens. The Knights, who suffered the biggest collapse in their proud history with the reverse sweep in the second round, had no answer for them.
Ratcliffe, quiet the first five games, scored the tying and winning tally in Guelph’s four-goal third period. Suzuki racked up a goal and two assists, was plus-5 and finished with a series-best 13 points.
The Canadiens prospect was clearly the missing piece London needed from Owen Sound at the OHL’s trade deadline.
“We have to give them a lot of credit,” said Knights over-ager Will Lochead, who grew up with Ratcliffe and Suzuki. “They’re one of five teams (in OHL lore) to come back from down 0-3. It’s incredible what they did. All our players can learn from this. You can never really take the foot off the gas when you’re up (in a game or a series).
“They were down in the third and somehow came back and beat us.”
The Knights, up 3-2 thanks to an early second-period blitz, lost just four times this season when leading after 40 minutes. Three of those defeats came against Guelph.
“The first three games (of the series), we got the upper hand with the hockey gods in our favour,” Lochead said, “then the next four, they did. You have to give Isaac, Nick, (Nate) Schnarr and (MacKenzie) Entwistle a lot of credit. Those four are quite the powerhouse (up front).
“A lot of the guys in our room are pretty choked up. For the older guys (like Evan Bouchard and Alex Formenton), it’s tough. You have to say goodbye to a lot of great friends.”
WRONG TURN: No one said it was going to be easy, but the Knights missed their golden opportunities in Game 4 and 5.
They couldn’t find the equalizer in Guelph last Wednesday and then went 0-for-7 on what had been a potent power play back home Friday.
“Game 4, we liked the analytics from it,” London assistant coach Dylan Hunter said. “We just couldn’t close it out. When you can’t close a good team, they storm right back and did what they did. That Game 5, we couldn’t put one in. We had some kicks at it and couldn’t get it done.
“They adjusted, started dumping the puck in more and overloading on us. It was hard for us to handle.”
The Knights biggest problem was offensive consistency. Most of their goals came from the power play and the blue-line.
They scored seven times in back-to-back games early, but Guelph goalie Anthony Popovich righted himself. The Knights never found more than three goals in a contest again.
“You put everything you have into it every day,” Hunter said. “When you’re that close and lose a Game 7, it hurts. It’s hard for them to know they left everything out there and didn’t win. We had a good year but it’s not the way we wanted it to go.”
Fifteen years ago, Dylan Hunter was on a Knights team that lost a third-round Game 7 to Guelph, interestingly by the same 6-3 score in London. The Storm went on to win the OHL championship.
The following year, the Knights put together the Canadian Hockey League’s Team of the Century.
“I told them about my experience,” he said. “We came back and won the Memorial Cup (in 2005). We had a little fire. It’s the same thing. It’s what you have to do.”
PIVOTAL DRAW: On paper, the Knights won more faceoffs than Guelph did in Game 7, but they lost the most important ones.
Up a goal early in the third, the Knights were caught for icing and tried to make a quick change to put Billy Moskal out for the defensive-zone draw. Entwistle and a couple of alert Storm players complained that he wasn’t an eligible player.
“We saw Moskal come on and said, ‘Wait, (Paul) Cotter just took the draw. There’s no way he got off for that.’ We talked to the linesman and he said he didn’t see it, but his other (officials) helped him out.
“That was a pretty big moment.”
Suzuki beat Cotter on the ensuing faceoff, Ratcliffe fired home the tying goal and the Knights never did regain momentum.
“We have 15 guys who could move on and we didn’t want to go home,” Suzuki said. “It was a character win. It’s probably more special being from London. There are a ton of memories here.”
He will never forget this one.
And, sadly, neither will the Knights.
RARE OCCASION: According to junior hockey statistician Geoffrey Brandow, the Knights are the 12th OHL team in the last 32 years to lead a series 3-0 and end up in a Game 7. They will go down in infamy as one of five teams who couldn’t finish their foes.
The Petes did it to Kingston in 2014, Memorial Cup champ Windsor toppled Kitchener in ’10, the Spitfires tripped up the Sault in ’05 (before losing to London in Round 2) and Ottawa beat Oshawa in 1988.
London had previously staved off a comeback with a Game 7 win three times – against the Guelph Platers in 1989, against Erie in ’98 and, most recently, in ’07 against the Soo Greyhounds.
This was the first time they lost four straight in a seven-game series. It was also their first four-game losing streak all season.
AROUND THE RINK: The Storm scored the opening goal. The team that scored first won all but the sixth game, when the Knights got on the board initially . . . The Canada-United States matchup at the next world junior hockey championships just got more interesting. Scott Sandelin, the coach of back-to-back NCAA champion University of Minnesota-Duluth, has been named coach of the U.S. world junior team. So it will be one of the top minds in the college ranks against Canadian boss Dale Hunter, one of junior hockey’s most successful coaches . . . The Knights are now 8-9-1 all-time in Game 7s and 4-5 since the Hunters took over in 2000. The Storm are 3-2 and hadn’t played one since their victory in 2004 at London . . . Former Storm star Drew Doughty and ex-Knights captain Danny Syvret watched the game together in a Bud suite. Doughty is from London and Syvret, who lives here, grew up a half-hour from Guelph in Millgrove . . . Suzuki was named the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the week for five goals and 10 points in four games against the Knights . . . Bouchard led London with 11 points in seven games. Liam Foudy had a team-best five goals.
Storm 6, Knights 3
Guelph wins best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal 4-3
Guelph goals: Isaac Ratcliffe (2), MacKenzie Entwistle (2), Dmitri Samorukov, Nick Suzuki
London goals: Alex Formenton, Connor McMichael, Liam Foudy
Next: The Storm face Saginaw in the conference final starting Thursday
Storm 6, Knights 3
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