History has been made in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Unfortunately, for the Western Conference’s top-seeded Windsor Spitfires, it means no return to the league championship. The eighth-seeded Kitchener Rangers eliminated the favourites with a 5-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, sweeping their first-round series and making league history in the process.
Coming into the playoffs, the Spitfires were riding high. They loaded up at the January trade deadline, led the league in goals this season (320), and felt they could make a return to the OHL Championship (lost in Game 7 last season). However, the Rangers loaded up at the deadline, had multiple NHL prospects and featured a goaltender with Memorial Cup experience. They weren’t your typical eight-seed and were eager to show that they could hang with the best. A 3-0 series lead heading into Game 4 proved they were the real deal.
Spitfires Have No Answers in Game 4
The Spitfires went 4-0 against the Rangers in the regular season, but they couldn’t find an answer to the Rangers’ game plan in this series. The underdogs seemed to be one step ahead, stifling the Spitfires’ offence while getting quality defence and goaltending. Game 4 at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium on Thursday proved to be much of the same.
Despite a confident start from the Spitfires, the teams were held scoreless through the first period. That was snapped early in the second period when forward Jacob Maillet gave the visitors the 1-0 lead. However, the lead was brief. Carson Rehkopf tied it for the Rangers just five minutes later, Danny Zhilkin made it 2-1 shortly after, and Filip Mesar ended the period with one of this own. That’s all the home side needed. They added a pair in the third, got strong goaltending from Marco Costantini, and cruised to a 5-1 win, sweeping the series 4-0. It’s just the third time in league history that an eight-seed has beaten a first seed (the last time was 2004-05) and the first time for a sweep.
This is going to sting for a while. While the Spitfires started the series poorly, they played better in Games 3 and 4. It just wasn’t enough to beat the masterful performance by the Rangers. The underdogs elevated their entire game at home, going 5-for-6 on the penalty kill (15-for-16 in the series), outscoring the favourites 11-4 (20-7 in the series), and getting brilliant outings from Costantini. When you limit a team that averaged 4.7 goals per game in the season to just 1.75 in the playoffs, good things will happen. Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard did what he could, but sometimes, you have to tip the cap.
Maggio, Renwick, and Onuska’s Final Games
With the loss, there’s one tough guarantee. The Spitfires’ three overage (20-year-old) players – captain Matthew Maggio, defenceman Michael Renwick, and goaltender Mathias Onuska – have played their final OHL games.
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Maggio, a Tecumseh (Windsor suburb) native, came to the club in June 2019 in a trade with the Ottawa 67’s. After a breakout 2021-22 campaign, the New York Islanders’ prospect was named captain last November. While he led the league this season with 111 points, he’s more about the team, the community, and playing the right way. After growing up at the old Windsor Arena, playing for his hometown club was a dream. Replacing his production will be tough. Replacing his character might be next to impossible.
The grandson of former Spitfires’ coach Dave Prpich, Renwick joined the Spitfires from the Hamilton Bulldogs in June 2020. Last season, he established himself as a strong two-way player and a leader in the room. This season, the club gave him an alternate captain’s “A” and he ran with it. On the ice, he continuously improved his production every season, going from 17 points with the Bulldogs in 2019-20 to 29 points last season and 35 points this season. His leadership on the back end and in the room will be sorely missed.
Acquired from the London Knights in January 2022, Onuska arrived with just five OHL games played. This shot in the dark turned into the Spitfires’ rock from March 2022 through Game 7 of the 2022 OHL Championship. Unfortunately, injuries hurt his numbers this season. However, when Savard called on him in Games 3 and 4 against the Rangers, he stepped up. From being an unsung hero to a great mentor for 17-year-old goaltender Joey Costanzo, the Waterloo native was an underrated but very appreciated part of this club.
Bowler Prepares for Summer Changes
With the season over, the club starts working on 2023-24. When general manager Bill Bowler decided to go big this season, it meant a lot of veterans coming in, a lot of draft picks heading out, and a very busy off-season on the horizon.
It starts with the 2023 OHL Draft on Fri., Apr. 21 and Sat., Apr. 22. Normally, Bowler, Director of Scouting Frank Evola, and their staff would make multiple selections on both days. However, they have no picks in rounds two through five since they were buyers at the deadline. They have the 20th overall pick in the first round, but the rest will be a challenge. Fortunately, the club has been impressed with their 2022 picks – defenceman Anthony Cristoforo, forward Liam Greentree, and forward A.J. Spellacy – which removes some pressure.
We also know that, aside from the three overagers, forward Shane Wright, 19, will also be graduating. He will either join the Seattle Kraken or their AHL affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds. They also have to figure out what to do with seven potential returning overagers (2003-born). Forward Brett Harrison will likely join the Boston Bruins’ system. However, Bowler needs to decide on the other six, as clubs can only dress three for any game. Some may bring several draft picks, which could help restock the cupboards.
Nobody expected the Spitfires’ off-season to start on April 7, but that’s the reality we’re in. While the rest of the league keeps playing, Bowler, Savard, and the rest of the staff will be busy planning for the future. Stay tuned for coverage of the OHL Draft, CHL Import Draft (late June or early July), trades, and more.