Memorial Cup: London Knights’ big Finn gears up for big finish

8 min read

Kasper Halttunen got a lot of mileage out of the Secret Santa gift he got this season with the London Knights.

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SAGINAW, Mich. – Kasper Halttunen got a lot of mileage out of the Secret Santa gift he got this season with the London Knights.

Backup goaltender Owen Willmore gave him a black T-shirt that reads Halts Need One Tee, an inside joke about the big Finn’s passion for blasting one-time shots in practices and games.

“I wore it every road game this year,” the 18-year-old Sharks prospect said, “except for here (at the Memorial Cup). Everyone is wearing suits, so I had to wear that (instead).”

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It hasn’t made a difference. Halttunen has scored in every Cup game and the Knights are getting historic offensive production from their two import players in Saginaw.

Only Moose Jaw’s Denton Mateychuk and Brayden Yager – both Canadian world junior players and NHL first-rounders – have matched the combined six goals Halttunen and Russian Ruslan Gazizov scored in the round-robin.

“They’ve been very good, and at key moments, too, which is very important,” London GM Mark Hunter said. “These guys are good teammates, good people and an integral part of the team. I think they feel the responsibility of winning and losing. They believe they can make a difference in the game and they have.”

Moose Jaw has a goal each from imports Vojtech Port and Martin Rysavy of Czechia. Drummondville’s Peter Repcik of Slovakia had a pair, while Saginaw hasn’t got a goal yet from faceoff machine Matyas Sapovaliv or mobile Swiss defenceman Rodwin Dionicio, who was actually born in New York.

They’re playing their part, but nothing compared to what the Knights duo is doing.

“I think Ruslan has come a long way as a player,” Hunter said. “He knows what he needs to do to be successful after three years and he’s adapted to North American hockey. He’s really engaged in it and improved his game.

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“Now, he’s one of our go-to guys.”

Halttunen has been a power-play force, but not one-dimensional. His play to set up Denver Barkey’s tip-in against Saginaw Wednesday was sublime.

“We’ve been fortunate how quickly he’s adapted to the style of play here,” Mark Hunter said. “He got better and better as the year got going. He had a monster of a playoffs and he’s playing well here again.

“We still have one game left to win (Sunday), so he’ll be a big part of it if we win it.”

The six-foot-three, 215-pounder scored 17 goals in 18 playoff games and now has 20 goals in his last 21 post-season outings. The speed at the Cup is nothing to him after a world junior appearance and skating in the Finnish pro league last year.

“When you’re a young guy playing against men with the big crowds, you have to show that you (can) earn everything,” Halttunen said. “This year in London, we have 9,000 fans a game and wherever you go, it’s a packed rink. As a young kid, you dream of these kinds of games.

“It was pretty fun out there.”

Pretty close to teeing up a one-timer.

CHASING HISTORY: TSN’s Craig Button called Dale Hunter one of the top 15 hockey coaches on the planet during Wednesday’s Cup broadcast and he’s probably right. It’s incredible the Knights bench boss has won only three OHL coach of the year honours – and none in the last 14 years.

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Hunter can match Don Hay’s record three Memorial Cup titles with a win Sunday and would be the first to do it with one franchise. He is already second on the OHL’s all-time win list behind Ottawa’s Brian Kilrea and just tied the legendary coach with his 13th Cup victory in the Saginaw game. Hunter has a 13-6 record in five tournament appearances. Kilrea was 13-10 while Hay, the all-time leader, is 14-4 since the event changed formats in 1972.

But one of the great coaching coincidences is Dale Hunter won his first Memorial Cup in 2005 and his old Colorado Avalanche teammate, Patrick Roy, followed him with a 2006 triumph with Quebec. Roy, now the Islanders coach, won his second with the Remparts last year and Hunter now has a chance to follow the Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender with a win Sunday.

PAREKH EFFECT?: Did Saginaw defenceman Zayne Parekh deserve a major penalty for cross-checking London’s Max McCue in the face Wednesday?

It sure looked like it. Instead, the OHL’s top rearguard drew a double minor for high-sticking, while McCue ended up bleeding with some chipped teeth.

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A major penalty, of course, would have meant a first-period ejection for Parekh. That would have sent the Spirit bench – and most of the crowd – into a frenzy.

Objectively, what Parekh did to McCue was worse than the cross-check to the neck London’s Kaleb Lawrence delivered to Parekh in the playoffs and Lawrence was suspended for five games.

That one might not have been the right call, but referees Sean Reid and Jeff Hopkins did huddle to change one error Wednesday. Jacob Julien was originally given a slashing penalty on a play where Saginaw defenceman Braden Hache broke his stick trying to slash the Knights forward.

Instead, the penalty was negated after the four officials talked about it.

“They made the right call,” Saginaw coach Chris Lazary said. “We slashed their player. Our stick broke and they got together to make the right call. It’s the best of the best when it comes to the referees in the tournament here. There’s a good crew. They got together and made the right call.”

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