John Matisz: Dynamic Knights prove their worth earlier than expected

They’ve been checking things off, in green and gold, all season long.

The London Knights have exceeded expectations in 2011-12. From the first puck-drop onwards, they’ve managed to silence critic after critic.

Yours truly made a pre-season prediction that they would enter the playoffs as a middle-of-the-pack Western Conference seed.

They were about to ice a group of players whose average age was 17.6 on opening night, so it’s safe to say I wasn’t alone in thinking the young team would need time to gel and excel.

Opening night proved to be a laugher, though, as they walloped a competitive Saginaw Spirit squad 8-0.

Since then, all the checkpoints toward a national title have been crossed off.

Pick up valuable veteran pieces at the deadline without sacrificing the future? Mark Hunter made it happen.

Stay atop the OHL standings virtually the entire season? The players took care of that.

Run away with the league title in 19 playoff games? Yep, the Knights did that, too.

And now, the biggest checkpoint of all: capture a second Memorial Cup in seven years. That’s set for Sunday.

Most CHL teams, including London, try to peak when their league hosts the Memorial Cup. For the OHL, that’s 2014.

But London’s expedited success isn’t strictly because of the play of future leaders Max Domi and Bo Horvat. The coaching staff has appropriately praised the leadership group of Michael Houser, Jarred Tinordi, Jared Knight and Scott Harrington throughout the year.

They’re a squad that appears to have the framework fit for the next major junior hockey dynasty: Quality up-and-comers learning from a defiant core of veterans.

The Knights have found a formula that can produce a cohesive group in a short time span. Assistant GM Misha Donskov called it “London Knights hockey.”

It’s a team-first philosophy. Linemates are good friends off the ice, defensive pairings predict each other’s every move on the ice. And — let’s face it — it’s hard to be unhappy with 70 wins in 95 total games played.

Locals certainly hope there’s enough left in the tank for one final win. If any team is capable of finding that extra gear, it’s the London Knights.

After all, they’ve found it again and again.

The London “Jr.” Knights?

21-year-olds on 25-man roster — 1

20 — 6

19 — 7

18 — 3

17 — 8

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