OTTAWA — Brett Brochu stood on his head and the London Knights served notice first overall in the OHL might still be within reach after beating the Ottawa 67’s 4-2 Monday.
And the 67’s learned all too well — as they did last spring — any road to the Memorial Cup has to go through the Western Conference.
Still, a month before the start of post-season, if the 67’s needed a subtle reminder, well they got it, all in a span of 24 hours on home ice.
The high-flying Knights, the Ontario Hockey League’s hottest team in 2020 — yes, even hotter than the 67’s — rolled into Ottawa, spent a quiet Sunday relaxing while the 67’s battled and lost a shootout to the Western Conference Windsor Spitfires, then served notice first overall in the league might still be up for grabs after all.
“This was my first time playing here and it was a good matchup,” said Brochu, the game’s first star. “It was a fast game. High tempo. Lots of hitting.
“But even with that many shots against (45), our guys did a good job of keeping (the 67’s shots) to the outside.”
The two best in the league went toe-to-toe in a thriller with the outcome always in doubt until Jonathan Gruden, the Ottawa Senators fourth round pick in 2018, scored with 1:39 to play. Liam Foudy’s empty netter made the final score 4-2 on a Family Day matinee.
The back-and-forth battle gave a season-high crowd of 6,903 just a hint of what a seven-game OHL final between the Knights and 67’s might look like as management rolled back the drapes in The Arena at TD Place for a playoff-type, super-charged atmosphere.
To their credit, the back-to-back losses are just the second time this season the 67’s have had so much as a two-game losing streak. Of greater concern for Ottawa fans might be that the 67’s are 4-4 head-to-head against the top four clubs in the west.
The outcome did not significantly change the OHL overall standings as the two conference leaders remain 1-2. But a 67’s victory would have all but clinched first overall with just a month of regular season schedule to play. Now there could be a race with the 67’s having 16 games to play, London 15 and the margin down to nine points.
Regardless, both the 67’s and Knights have been virtually unbeatable in 2020 — the Knights improved to 16-2 in the New Year while the 67’s fell to 16-3-0-1.
And the teams didn’t disappoint in the least, neither team giving in and both competing as if it was a seventh game in a league final.
The 67’s totalled 81 shots on goal in the back-to-back losses. They outshot Windsor and London by a combined 29 shots, outgunning the Knights 45-29 only to have Tilbury native Brochu stand tall in the London net.
That said, the 67’s might have recalled firing just 18 shots and being shutout 3-0 by Brochu back on Oct. 6.
That’s because their first period was perhaps their finest all season on home ice. The 67’s needed all of 56 seconds before Mitchell Hoelscher hit the 30-goal plateau for the first time in four seasons as a 67, taking a perfect feed from Jack Quinn and bouncing it past Brochu.
And the 67’s kept it coming, the shot-clock reading 9-1 in their favour less than six minutes in and 22-7 on the period.
The only blip, besides a couple of giveaways in their own end, was a power-play goal by Connor McMichael, his 40th, on a shot from the point that had eyes to beat Cedrick Andree at 9:01.
The middle period was no less entertaining with multiple chances at both ends.
That left things to the third, which in both losses was a lot like a nervy ninth inning in baseball.
Future Chicago Blackhawk Alec Regula put London up 2-1 at 5:54 only to have Marco Rossi stretch his league-leading totals to 99 points by scoring at 8:16 as a London defenceman tried to bury him through Brochu and into the London net.
The league reviewed it and the goal stood. Knights head coach Dale Hunter wasn’t so convinced so he challenged it and that created an even longer delay before the goal stood … for good.
The 67’s appeared set for work overtime again until Gruden scored and Foudy, son of former Ottawa Rough Rider defensive back Sean Foudy, ended it with an empty-netter with 14.5 seconds left.
“These are the games we look forward to,” said 67’s standout defenceman Noel Hoefenmayer, who registered an assist to retain the OHL lead in scoring among D-men. “These are the games you can judge your team by.
“There’s a lot of positives we can take away from this weekend. We learned we can play with the best.
“But it stinks to lose. It always stinks to lose. And it’s always tough losing against the big teams. It’s hard not to be upset right now.”
Knights 4, 67’s 2
London goals: Connor McMichael 40th, Alec Regula 21st, Jonathan Gruden 26th, Liam Foudy 23rd
Ottawa goals: Mitchell Hoelscher, Marco Rossi
Next: The Knights are in Windsor Thursday at 7 p.m.; at Guelph Friday at 7:30 p.m.; and home to Guelph Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.