The London Knights’ elimination from their third consecutive Memorial Cup stung because it was their earliest exit of the three.
The host team of the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup was a true contender among the four teams in it.
With seven Knights forwards who helped the Knights win the last two Ontario Hockey League championships and with a team that scored more than 300 goals this season, London was a threat to win the Cup on their third try in as many years.
But the hosts were eliminated by the Guelph Storm in a 7-2 loss Wednesday. The Knights went 0-3 through the preliminary round and needed a win against their OHL rival to get into a tiebreaker game.
“We thought for sure we’d have a better chance of winning it this year,” Knights forward Josh Anderson said. “We didn’t have the bounces we wanted. It’s too bad it had to end this way.
“We wanted to have the Memorial Cup championship. I thought our organization really deserved one after the hard work we’ve been putting through these past three years. Looking at it now, I’m glad I got the opportunity to come here and play for the London Knights.”
The Knights lost the 2012 final 2-1 in overtime to the host Shawinigan Cataractes. They fell in last year’s semi-final to the Portland Winterhawks in Saskatoon.
The Storm were the first team since the Windsor Spitfires in 2010 to go 3-0 through the preliminary round. The OHL champions had already secured a berth in Sunday’s championship game after their second win.
“It gives us confidence to know we can beat every team in the tournament,” Storm forward Scott Kosmachuk said.
The Val-d’Or Foreurs, 2-1, and the Edmonton Oil Kings, 1-2, meet in Friday’s semi-final in a clash of the Quebec and Western league champions. The winner faces the Storm for the Cup.
Kosmachuk is a Winnipeg Jets prospect and led Guelph with a hat trick. Detroit Red Wings draft pick Tyler Bertuzzi scored twice. Marc Stevens and Dallas Stars prospect Jason Dickinson added a goal apiece for an explosive offence that’s churned out 18 goals in three games in the tournament.
The Storm’s Justin Nichols held off London when they pressed late in the first period and midway through the second. He made 45 saves for the win.
Anderson, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, and Brett Welychka replied for the Knights. London mustered just four goals in three games. Two were scored by defencemen.
The Knights were stopped on two penalty shots in the tournament and they scored once on 12 power-play chances. London outshot the Foreurs 51-28 in the first game of the tournament, but lost 1-0.
“It’s a bad time to get cold for offence and for scoring goals,” Knights forward Max Domi said.
London goalie Anthony Stolarz stopped 14 of 17 shots and was replaced by Jake Patterson early in the second when he inadvertently kicked the puck into his own net. Patterson allowed four goals on 21 shots.
Guelph also ousted London from this year’s OHL playoffs on April 11. The Knights had five weeks without a game, which may explain their lack of touch around the net.
“It’s not easy being off for that long and coming back and playing at the high level these guys have been playing through the whole thing and winning championships,” Knights forward Bo Horvat said. “We’ve been practising the whole time, but there’s no excuses.”
London’s goaltending felt unsettled as well. Because of an eight-game playoff suspension in March, Stolarz’s hiatus prior to the Cup was even longer. In his first game in seven weeks, he made 27 saves in the loss to Val-d’Or.
But the Philadelphia Flyers prospect was replaced by Patterson both Wednesday and after two periods of Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Edmonton.
Wednesday’s round-robin finale featured a pair of frightening knee-on-knee collisions, although the players in each case escaped major injury.
Storm assistant captain Zack Mitchell was tossed at 6:56 of the first period for kneeing London defenceman Dakota Mermis.
The CHL suspended his Storm teammate Chadd Bauman for the rest of the tournament Wednesday for the same hit on Val-d’Or defenceman Guillaume Gelinas on Monday.
Knights defenceman Nikita Zadorov took a tripping minor in a collision with Bertuzzi, who limped off the ice.
But both Mermis and Bertuzzi stayed in Wednesday’s game, whereas Gelinas was unable to play the following night against Edmonton.
London’s frustration boiled over in the final minutes and Stevens scored Guelph’s fourth power-play goal of the game on a two-man advantage at 17:14.
The Windsor Spitfires of 2010 went 4-0 en route to the Cup that year. But the Spitfires opened the 2009 tournament with a pair of losses and ran the table to claim the trophy.
For that reason, Guelph wanted London gone so the Knights couldn’t come back to haunt them Sunday.
“This team is a team that once they get this city and this building behind them, they can really do some damage,” Guelph captain Matt Finn said. “We didn’t want to let them back in because they’re a dangerous team.
“We wanted to be the team that was 3-0 and knock London out of this tournament.”