A quick exit wasn’t how the Windsor Spitfires pictured their playoffs going, but a chance at redemption is at their fingertips.
Coming into the 2016-17 season, the Spitfires knew they were hosting the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup. This was going to be their season. Make the trades, build the chemistry and develop a team that was poised for glory at the end of May.
Windsor loaded up on veteran players as soon as they were allowed to during the summer. They also signed some key rookies to create a depth that the team had lacked in previous seasons. It was all looking like a fantastic season for the Spitfires. Then, it all changed.
Injuries prevented the Spitfires from icing a full lineup for the majority of the season. In the first half, there were several key injuries that resulted in line juggling and even defencemen playing up front. The second half saw some improvement, but then the team lost 6’7” 230lb defenceman Logan Stanley for several weeks.
Focusing on the Positives
When the dust settled on the regular season, the Spitfires finished with 90 points, good for fifth in the conference. It was one of the toughest conferences the league has seen in years with four teams finishing with at least 99-points. As a result, Windsor faced the defending Mastercard Memorial Cup champions, the London Knights, in the first round.
The Knights’ were a league favourite all season. While Windsor took a 3-1 series lead, the Knights used their experience to frustrate the Spitfires. In the end, London won the series in seven games. It wasn’t easy for the Spitfires, but Windsor head coach Rocky Thompson said it has made everyone better.
“It was a heartbreaking defeat for us, but it was a great learning experience for our group,” he said. “(The loss) has made me a better coach and I know it’s made us a better team.”
While London’s experience took over in the final three games of the series, there were other factors that weren’t so obvious to the crowd. Thompson pointed to the injuries as having a lingering effect.
“We did have some players come back late in the season and play in the playoffs,” he said.
I don’t think the conditioning is where it needed to be as a result of these injuries. When you get into a tough seven game series, sometimes that comes through. Those are things we addressed over the break.
Practice Makes Perfect?
The loss sent Windsor to the practice ice. It’s not the pace or intensity of a playoff game against elite teams like Owen Sound, Sault Ste. Marie or Erie, but the break might have been just what the doctor ordered.
It gave Windsor a chance to heal, including getting Stanley back, but also a chance to refocus and mentally prepare for a very grueling 10-days. When Friday’s opener comes around, the team will be ready.
“We’ve tried to do our best to do game-play situations (so), when they drop the puck on Friday night, it’s not too foreign to them,” Thompson said.
While Seattle, Erie and Saint John have been battling tooth-and-nail to get to this tournament, the Windsor coaching staff has utilized their resources and come up with a game plan to prove that they belong with the elite of the CHL. They believe they can compete with the best.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to pre-scout these guys for a while now, so I do know what’s coming at us,” Thompson said.
Our team is in a better place right now than we were at the end of the season. As a result, there’s a hunger there that’s unparalleled than I’ve ever seen in a group.
Windsor and Saint John face off in the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup opener on Friday night at 7 pm.