PYETTE: A razor-thin margin, and a Memorial Cup heartbreaker

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Saginaw, Mich. – Josh Bloom’s goal with 21.7 seconds left in the Memorial Cup final will always be a bitter pill for the London Knights.

But it’s not the only thing that will haunt them from Sunday’s championship game in Saginaw, Mich.

The Knights clearly didn’t get enough shots on net. When you’re nearly halfway through the game and you only have one, that’s a problem.

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It felt like if they mustered a bare minimum of 20 on Spirit goaltender Andrew Oke, they would have won.

You don’t expect to face a major penalty and ejection in a game of this magnitude. But it happened to Landon Sim on a head check in open ice against defenceman Zayne Parekh.

London had been perfect on the penalty kill at the Cup up until Owen Beck gave Saginaw a two-goal edge early in the Sim power play. The Knights killed off the rest but that was five minutes lost to trying to make a push back at a crucial time.

You also don’t expect to get filled in at the faceoff dot so badly in the biggest game of the season. Saginaw’s Matyas Sapovaliv has been a problem all year for London, but Beck went 19-for-24 in the circle.

The Spirit scored their first goal off a faceoff win and kept London’s offence at bay by possessing the puck a lot.

“They were playing really hard and not taking as many risks as they used to,” Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter said. “We couldn’t get much pressure on the forecheck and they were coming around the top on us really well (to) keep it in the zone. You’re always on the defensive side of it.

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“They had a good game plan and (executed) it.”

London showed its resilience by storming back from the three-goal deficit. The OHL champs deserve a lot of credit for refusing to go away and giving themselves a chance.

Right until the final half-minute, Saginaw didn’t have the opportunity to put the Knights away like they did in the semifinal blowout win over Moose Jaw.

“We went into a 1-1-3 defensive shell and that’s a mistake by a coach,” Saginaw bench boss Chris Lazary said. “Why change anything when you’ve given up (six) shots or whatever it was at the second intermission? We had lived this nightmare already once in the round robin (Wednesday in a loss to the Knights). I told the guys, we’ve got to start making some more plays.”

The Spirit know the Knights had the chance to win it. Clutch Easton Cowan had the puck on his stick but couldn’t get the one-timer off with Oke on the other side of the net.

Looking back, that was the one that got away. Of course, maybe it could have been just a shot at added insurance if London had found a way to generate more scoring opportunities early.

By the end, it turned into a coin-flip game. And sometimes, the coin turns against you.

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“London is a helluva team and they proved that in the playoffs,” Beck said afterwards. “It could have gone either way. We’re just thankful this one was ours.”

When you go on the playoff run London did, you start to feel like a team of destiny. The Knights went out and earned their way into the Cup final.

Then, they contended with three days off. Sometimes, you don’t come out as sharp as you hoped while Saginaw rode the momentum of their big semifinal victory.

That, the chance to make history and their resolve to beat London in a meaningful game was more than enough motivation.

The Knights played 90 games this season and made it right to the end. They had a fantastic year, but fell one step short of the junior hockey mountaintop.

They will contend again next season. But some cuts take a long time to heal. Some of the faces will change and a new dynamic and bond will have to be formed.

“The game is the game,” Dylan Hunter said, “but it’s the relationships. Some of these guys will never play together again. It’s more that kind of thing. A lot of them will be moving on and won’t see each other for a long time.

“Those are relationships you build.”

You hope it’s enough to win it all. And when it’s not by such a slim margin, you lament some things that could have turned it in your favour.

rpyette@postmedia.com

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