London goalie Anthony Stolarz wasn’t sure he would get into another game this season after watching Knights counterpart Jake Patterson lead the club back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Ontario Hockey League final.
But after his teammate came down with the flu this week, Stolarz jumped at his chance Friday, leading London to a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the host Saskatoon Blades in the opening game of the 2013 Memorial Cup.
Stolarz says despite wanting to play in the do-or-die games against the Colts, the break did him some good in the long run.
“Going out there and having those days off and simplifying my game and working on things was tremendous,” he said after making 27 saves against the Blades. “Having the days off got me back into it physically and mentally.”
The Jackson, N.J., native joined the Knights mid-season and played the majority of the games before being replaced by Patterson in Game 5 of the OHL championship series.
“I just wanted to go out there when I had the time off fine-tune my game and refine a couple of things and just keep working hard,” Stolarz said. “If they would have played (Patterson) tonight I would have had no problem because him coming in and winning three straight to win the OHL championship, that’s a great feat.”
Nikita Zadorov snapped a 2-2 tie on the power play at 5:45 of the third period for the Knights against a Blades team that hadn’t played a game since March 27 after being swept out of the Western Hockey League playoffs in the first round.
“It was a hard-fought game out there. Saskatoon was ready to play. They did a good job preparing them and it was a tight game,” Knights coach Dale Hunter said. “Back and forth and fortunately we got a goal that made the difference.”
Seth Griffith, with an goal and an assist, and Brett Welychka also scored for the Knights, who got off to the start they wanted in the 10-day round-robin tournament to decide the Canadian Hockey League’s best team.
Josh Nicholls scored twice for Saskatoon, while Michael Ferland picked up two assists. Andrey Makarov was strong in stopping 30 shots for the Blades.
“In the effort that we showed tonight we definitely proved that we’re worthy of being here. Obviously the playoffs was a whole different story and we really want to prove to ourselves and the rest of the country that we’re a top team,” said Nicholls, who added that the Blades felt some rust after the long layoff. “We’ve simulated game-type situations, but nothing’s as fast as playing a league champion.”
Down 2-1 after a sluggish first period, Saskatoon started to find its legs in the second after killing off a London 54-second two-man advantage, thanks in large part to a couple of big stops from Makarov.
London’s Max Domi then had a great chance in front of Makarov midway through the period but sent a backhand just wide.
The Blades were energized by a couple of big hits and Nicholls tied it at 15:21 after taking a breakaway pass from Ferland. Stolarz made the initial save but Nicholls batted in the rebound, much to the delight of the towel-waving crowd of 10,203 at the Credit Union Centre.
After dodging a couple of bullets, penalties finally caught up to the Blades in the third period as Zadorov capitalized on London’s sixth chance with the man advantage, banging home a rebound past Makarov.
“I thought our guys battled extremely hard,” Blades coach Lorne Molleken said. “London is a great hockey club that came at us hard here tonight. We put ourselves in a position to win a hockey game and just came up short.
“Our guys should hold their heads high with the effort they put in tonight.”
Molleken told the media earlier in the week that his team was sick of practising and his players proved it in first period, laying two big hits early on.
The hosts opened the scoring at 7:59 of the first when Nicholls banged a puck past Stolarz off a wraparound pass from Ferland.
But the Knights started to find their game and carried the play until tying the score at 12:55 when Welychka swatted a shot in front past Makarov from in tight.
Saskatoon’s long layoff might have contributed to the go-ahead goals at 18:21 when London’s Bo Horvat jumped on a turnover in the neutral zone and fed Griffith, who beat Makarov with a backhand deke.
“In the early part of the hockey game we had some nerves and made some mistakes in our own zone and London had some great opportunities but our goaltender was outstanding for us tonight,” Molleken said. “He gave us an opportunity to win a hockey game. Penalties caught up with us. We knew that a big big part of it would be part of it.”
Notes: The Blades wound up scoreless on their two chances on the power play. ... Despite the host team playing in the first game, large swaths of seats in the upper bowl were empty. ... The Halifax Mooseheads meet the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday in the first game of the tournament for both clubs. The marquee matchup of the round robin features the three highest rated North American skaters for the upcoming NHL draft — Portland defenceman Seth Jones and Halifax forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. ... The Blades are back on the ice Sunday against the Mooseheads, while the Knights play the Winterhawks on Monday. ... The Memorial Cup was first awarded in 1919. The trophy was donated by the Ontario Hockey Association in honour of the soldiers killed in the First World War. After a rededication in 2010, it now recognizes Canadian soldiers killed in any conflict.