The top-seeded Windsor Spitfires are quickly realizing that the 2021-22 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoffs are a different beast. After a tough first round against the eighth-seeded Sarnia Sting, the seventh-seeded Kitchener Rangers are giving them all they can handle in the second round with the series tied 1-1 heading back to Kitchener.
Following the 2022 OHL trade deadline, Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard turned his club into a well-oiled machine. They won 13-straight near the end of the season, catapulting themselves into first in the Western Conference. With great reward comes great responsibility, though, and they headed into the post-season with a giant target on their back. The young, hungry Sting had nothing to lose and forced their first-round series into a Game 6. Now, coming off a Game 7 win against the second-seeded London Knights, the Rangers aren’t backing down against the favourites and it’s looking like a marathon.
Let’s dive into this series…
Rangers Opportunistic in Games 1 and 2
In theory, the Spitfires should have had nothing to worry about. They led the OHL in goals this season (305), had all kinds of confidence after their winning streak, and were virtually unbeatable. However, they’ve looked like anything but that team through the first eight games of the playoffs.
In the Sarnia series, the Spitfires’ offence dried up and they relied on water-tight defence to get past the Sting. Something had to change in round two against the Rangers.
In Game 1 on Saturday at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, back-and-forth pond hockey resulted in a surprising eight second-half goals, including a hat-trick from veteran Alex Christopoulos. The offence was back as the Spitfires took a dramatic 6-5 win. While the club was happy to get the win, the Rangers exploited holes in the defence and something had to change.
Game 2 on Sunday saw the Spitfires continue to press the offence but missed opportunities, a struggling power play, and strong goaltending from Jackson Parsons gave the Rangers life. The visitors were opportunistic and took advantage of turnovers, making life hard on goaltender Mathias Onuska. While he was strong, it wasn’t enough as the visitors grabbed a 4-2 win.
Leaving the WFCU Centre with a 1-1 series was preventable. The Spitfires still struggled on the power play, made far too many turnovers, and their defence fell flat. Onuska continues to be a rock and the group of Christopoulos, defenceman Andrew Perrott (four playoff goals), Wyatt Johnston (13 points, 8 games), and Will Cuylle (8 points, 8 games) have been outstanding, but they can’t be alone. The team, as a whole, needs to step up.
Related: Windsor Spitfires Start 2021-22 OHL Trade Deadline with a Bang
After Game 2, Perrott said it’s a series for a reason.
“It’s one game, that’s why there are seven.”
Onto the next…
Spitfires Re-Adjust, Hit Road for Games 3 and 4
While getting the split is disappointing, the Spitfires head on the road knowing that they have more to give.
The series now switches to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium for Games 3 and 4, on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. It’s an intimidating barn but one the Spitfires can win in. After Sunday’s game, Cuylle said Game 3 is crucial.
“The mindset is that it’s a must-win game, especially on the road,” he said.
“Going up 2-1 … would be really important to us … I want to see lots of desperation from everyone …”
The Spitfires know they’re facing an opportunistic underdog that never stops. The Rangers beat the Knights for a reason. Savard’s club also knows they have issues of their own. The power play is an abysmal 6.2-percent, multiple veterans have gone cold on the scoresheet, and miscues in both zones are becoming their biggest enemy.
Fortunately, those issues can be fixed and sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. When asked if it’s important to take a step back and not take anything for granted, given all that’s happened this year, Savard said it’s a game and not time to panic.
“It’s a game and, when it’s taken away from you (COVID-19), you enjoy it that much more,” he said.
“You come to the rink, you’re not at home and not locked up. You come play hockey and enjoy life. It’s a game … we lost (Sunday), but we went in there and talked to the guys. Don’t panic, some have to be better, you know who you are… and hopefully they are.”
The Spitfires are the top seed for a reason. While the Rangers are proving to be more-than-worthy opponents, there’s no reason Savard’s club can’t figure this out. It starts with Game 3 on Tuesday night.