They’ve already saved their season.
Now, the London Nationals have one last opportunity to define their legacy.
“There’s no tomorrow,” London GM/coach Pat Powers said. “Your back is against the wall, but if you want to do the reverse analogy, your chest is up against the glass. If you win, you bust through it and it’s on to bigger and better things.
“We already played a must-win situation in Waterloo (in a dominant 5-1 Game 6 victory Sunday) and this one is no different.”
Everyone has their own motivation.
Max Vinogradov and Colin Wilson have been with the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League powerhouse the longest. Cal Davis was part of the Caledonia team that fell in the final last year.
The Nationals lost to a near-unbeatable Corvairs squad in 2016. Then, they were shut down by a veteran MVP goalie against Elmira in ’17.
“It’s a good sign when your organization is continually in this situation,” Powers said. “We’ve been here now at the cusp for four years. You want to win a championship, but I would never give up those opportunities we’ve had for growth. Hopefully, some of those guys who have been in the room for the heartbreaks are willing to have a little success here.”
The Siskins, seeking their record 12th Cup but first in 25 years, have balance and grit in front of a 16-year-old netminder.
They started this series like gangbusters, but couldn’t land the knockout punch on home ice.
Now, they will see the Nationals’ best lineup with high-scoring Riley MacRae back fresh from a controversial four-game suspension.
He doesn’t think he deserved such a punishment.
“The player I hit came back (in Game 4), I’m given a match penalty and I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “But the league saw it differently, so there was nothing I could do. Sitting out four games in a series like this is no fun.
“I’m just excited to get back and help the team. Everything is happening for a reason and here we are playing as late as we can and it’s my final junior game.”
There have been plenty of stars in this series. But in Game 7, you need a hero. MacRae is a candidate.
ROAD SHOW: The road team has won four of the six games so far.
So you can throw home-ice advantage and its line-matching possibilities out the window. London already scrapped that idea a long time ago.
“We started off in Game 1 line matching and it completely took us out of our rhythm (in a 9-4 loss),” Powers said. “We play four lines. We’re a deep team. I have a lot of trust in all our guys and it was more disruptive than helpful. I let the guys go play and gave everyone the responsibility to play sound hockey. They responded.”
The best part of home ice these days is in the stands.
“Hopefully, Western Fair will be packed,” MacRae said, “and we can use that energy for us.”
“Getting hurt late in the year and exams and stuff got screwed up. That was too bad. Everything is happening for a reason and here we are playing as late as we can in my final year. My last junior game is here and it’s exciting.”
TWILIGHT ZONE: The Siskins owned the neutral zone in their opening two wins. London has won three of the last four by turning the tables on the odd-man rush statistics.
“It’s something we had to work on throughout the series,” Powers said. “Waterloo really took advantage of us the first couple of games and I would say in our (Game 5) loss, they took advantage again. It’s something if we’re aware of our positioning and our numbers on the rush, that speed zone is going to be important for whoever is successful here.”
SUPER ROOKIE: As well as Waterloo goaltender Matt Onuska played early on, London’s first-year forward George Diaco has been the best young gun. He has three goals and eight points in the series, including the Game 4 winner. He has racked up 29 points in 26 playoff games and is likely to play with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs this fall.
“George is incredible,” Powers said. “He never stops skating. Sure, he does some things with the puck maybe you don’t love, but he’s trying his hardest. He’s been great for us. All the guys on the team want to be on his line and we’re going to miss him next year.”
CAPTAIN SISKIN: The symmetry is perfect. Waterloo’s leader Alex Cimino, who started his Junior B days as a National, ends them at home.
But don’t expect much emotional strain from the situation.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Cimino said. “As long as we win, it doesn’t matter where or against who.”
The 21-year-old former Jr. Knight hasn’t just been a physical presence in these playoffs. He has been a major offensive producer, matching his regular-season total of three goals and 24 points in 17 fewer playoff games.