Not even their head coach expected the London Knights to be this good this quickly.
Seth Griffiths scored the winning goal as the Knights beat the Niagara IceDogs 2-1 Friday to win the Ontario Hockey League title.
The Knights won the best-of-seven final 4-1 and claimed just the second J Ross Robertson Cup in franchise history. They will open their quest for the Memorial Cup May 18 against the defending CHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
London won the Memorial Cup in its only other appearance when it hosted the tournament in 2005.
"With such a young group of players, we didn't think we would win this early," said Mark Hunter, head coach, general manager and vice president of the Knights. "We also knew though that we had the right players in the mix like [Jarred] Tinordi, Harry [Scott Harrington], Seth Griffith, Vladdy [Vladislav Namestnikov], and of course [goalie] Michael Houser.
"I'm very proud of all my players. After I took over, the players seemed to really buy into what I was teaching."
Hunter assumed the head coaching duties in late Novermber when brother Dale Hunter was hired as head coach of the Washington Capitals. London had 20 wins in 26 starts at the time, and ended up 49-18-1.
Ryan Rupert, with four goals in the five-game final, is one of the core of young London players born in 1994 or '95. Max Domi, Chris Tierney and defenceman Olli Maatta, who was tied for first on the club in scoring in the post-season with six goals and 23 points, are also part of the youth movement.
London's Austin Watson opened the scoring in the second period of the decisive Game 5. Watson slipped the puck past IceDogs' goalie Mark Visentin during a scramble in the crease. The play was innocently set up by Scott Harrington's shot from an impossible angle, but Visentin was unable to locate the puck on the blue paint.
London went up 2-0 at 1:48 into the third as Griffith buried a pass from Vladislav Namesnikov on a 2-on-1.
Tom Kuhnhackl scored the lone Niagara goal 7:53 into the third period.
Niagara outshot the Knights 27-22, but were 0-for-4 on the power play. Niagara failed to beat Houser during a pivotal four-minute advantage when it was still scoreless early in the second.
Houser stopped 26 of 27 shots for London, which was 0-for-3 on the power play.
Visentin made 20 saves for Niagara.
Niagara won the series opener 3-2 in double overtime and had a 2-0 lead in Game 2 before London took control, skating to a 5-3 victory.
Watson was named the playoff most valuable player trophy, the 99 Award, named after NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky.
"The biggest thing is winning the OHL championship," he said. "We worked so hard for an entire year and grew together so much after the trade deadline," said Watson, who had 10 goals and seven assists in the playoffs. "Bringing the OHL championship to London is awesome.
"We have to give Niagara credit, they never quit. Even going down 3-1 in the series Niagara gave us a tough tough game."
London captain Tinordi said the bench stayed composed down the stretch in maintaining its late lead.
"We're confident in our team, we're confident in Houser and we were confident in all our guys playing the right way and staying with the game plan," he said.
The Memorial Cup will also include host Shawinigan and the Western Hockey League champion, either Portland or Edmonton.
"The ultimate goal is to win the Memorial Cup," Harrington said. "We were always confident in our capabilities and everyone [on our team] came to play every night."
For Niagara, it was a club with 12 NHL drafted players and after a slow start of just three wins in 10 starts to begin the season, entered the playoffs with 44 wins in its final 58 games. Coach Marty Williamson also lost in the 2009 finals as head coach of the Barrie Colts.