It was a classic case of hard work beating talent as the London Knights came out on top Saturday.
Vladislav Namestnikov scored twice and Austin Watson had a goal and two assists as the Knights outhustled and upset the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs 5-3 at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The No. 1-ranked Sea Dogs were a perfect 4-0 while winning last year’s Memorial Cup in Mississauga, Ont., but their star forwards were thwarted by London’s team defence and they needed two short-handed goals just to stay in the game against the Ontario Hockey League champions.
“We’ve been battling all year to outwork teams and beat teams,” said Watson. “Play a tight defence and capitalize on our chances.
“They definitely didn’t take us lightly. They came out flying. It was a good battle. They’re a great hockey team and we’ll have to battle if we see them again.”
London is in action again Sunday night against the host Shawinigan Cataractes (0-1), while the Sea Dogs play their second game on Monday night against the Western Hockey League champion Edmonton Oil Kings (1-0).
Watson’s goal at 10:49 of the third period turned out to be the winner as the Knights held off the Sea Dogs’ vaunted attack.
Down 4-3 in the third, Saint John mounted some late pressure, but any chance of tying the game and forcing overtime disappeared when star forward Jonathan Huberdeau over-reacted to a poke from pesky Ryan Rupert and got a four-minute roughing call with 2:04 left to play.
Coach Gerard Gallant went ballistic on the bench and got a bench minor, giving London a two-man advantage they used to put the game away on Namestnikov’s second of the game.
Gallant later acknowledged his top players didn’t work hard enough and that London deserved to win, but his frustration spilled out toward the officials. He said his team has been a target as it dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League the last three seasons.
“I’ve been complaining for three years that we always get the short end of the stick and I’m tired of it,” he said. “I’m not taking anything away from London, they were the better team, but I’m so tired of that.
“You show your frustration at the end of the game. I don’t want to do that, but it’s been over and over again, so I’m tired of it.”
London went 1-for-8 on the power play, while Saint John was 1-for-5.
Huberdeau, the third overall pick in last year’s NHL draft by Florida, admitted his error.
“It was frustration. I shouldn’t do that,” he said. “We had a chance to come back and I took the penalty. It was undisciplined.
“Now we have to forget about it. We can’t panic now. We have to think about the next game and work on what we didn’t do well.”
Huberdeau may have been lucky not to be tossed from the game when he rammed Ryan’s brother Matt Rupert into the glass from behind only 16 seconds into the first period, earning an elbowing minor.
But the Sea Dogs used that to take the lead while shorthanded at 1:37 when Charles-Olivier Roussel beat Michael Houser with a long shot.
After that goal, Saint John let up and London took over, forcing turnovers and winning nearly every puck battle, even though the Sea Dogs ended up with a 25-24 shot advantage.
“We just played hard and out-competed them and came out on top,” said Ryan Rupert, who with his brother Matt checked Saint John’s top line relentlessly. “We wanted to come in here and make a splash right away.
“With them being Memorial Cup champions, we wanted to prove ourselves in the first game, and we did.”
Domi, son of former NHL tough guy Tie Domi, showed some grit as he went to the net and flipped the puck over Mathieu Corbeil while falling to the ice to tie the game at 14:11.
Only 1:20 later, strong forechecking saw Tyler Ferry feed Namestnikov in the slot as the Knights took the lead.
The Sea Dogs were in trouble when they were outhustled again and Seth Griffith made it 3-1 at 12:41 of the second frame.
But while shorthanded again, Saint John got a strange goal as Huberdeau’s long shot went off Namestnikov and bounced to the net and right between Houser’s pads with 2:03 left in the period.
Ryan Rupert stole a puck from Pierre Durepos behind the Sea Dogs’ net and fed Watson in front to restore the two-goal margin, but Saint John struck back at 12:01 with the man advantage. Unhappy with his stars, Gallant sent his third line out for the power play and Ryan Tysink scored on a deflection of a Nathan Beaulieu point shot.
Gallant said the bad ice at the Bionest Centre that has plagued the most skilled players was not an excuse because his best should have worked through it.
“We weren’t good,” he said. “The only time we worked hard was on the penalty kill.
“It was a pretty disappointing performance, but we’ve still got a couple of games to battle back. London played a great game. They frustrated our guys. That’s not typical for the Sea Dogs. We didn’t get our game going at all.”
Notes: The tournament hockey operations committee announced that officials should not have reviewed a Shawinigan goal in Friday’s 4-3 win by Edmonton. Goals scored after a whistle are not reviewable. The goal by Anton Zlobin at 6:37 of the third period cut Edmonton’s lead to 3-2. Had Shawinigan won, then there would be controversy.