Playoff hockey can be a strange beast. During the 2021-22 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season, the Western Conference’s top-seeded Windsor Spitfires used a lethal offence to frustrate their opponents. In their first two games of the playoffs, though, it’s been their depth and defence that have stolen the show as the club has grabbed a 2-0 series lead over the eighth-seeded Sarnia Sting.
When you lead the league in goals scored (305) and are the highest-scoring Spitfires’ team since the 2009 and 2010 Memorial Cup rosters, other areas take a back seat from the spotlight. In the first two games of this Western Conference first-round match, though, it’s the club’s depth and defence that have really come to the forefront. General manager Bill Bowler made some bold moves in all areas before the January trade deadline and those have paid off in spades. While stars like Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) and Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) have been dynamite, others are stepping up in a big way.
Let’s dive into the first two games…
Onuska and Gaudreau Battle in Games 1 and 2
On paper, this is a series about two different teams. The Spitfires are all-around deadly but the younger Sting are hungry with strong goaltending. It’s lopsided on paper but you still have to play the games.
In Game 1, the Spitfires started newcomer Matt Onuska (acquired from the London Knights) and the Sting countered with San Jose Sharks‘ prospect Benjamin Gaudreau. While the home side peppered Gaudreau with 23 shots in the opening 40 minutes, Onuska saw just five in the same time. Being that quiet isn’t mentally easy but he found a way to stay focused. That’s all the club could ask of him.
Fortunately, the Spitfires were able to give Onuska some support. Forwards Alex Christouplos (acquired from the North Bay Battalion) and James Jodoin, along with defenceman Andrew Perrott (Owen Sound Attack) scored in separate periods while Onuska earned his first OHL shutout for a 3-0 win.
Game 2 on Saturday night was almost a repeat performance. The Spitfires continued to batter Gaudreau, hoping to rattle his confidence a bit. However, they only got one past him heading into the final frame. The good news? At the other end, Onuska was calm and collected, despite a fraction of the shots.
In the final 20, the Sting finally beat Onuska on a nice odd-man rush. However, the Spitfires found cracks in Gaudreau with Daniel D’Amico, Pasquale Zito (Detroit Red Wings), and Cuylle all beating him for a 4-1 win. Johnston added three assists in the cause.
The Spitfires knew that Gaudreau could be an X-factor and was capable of stealing a game. He and Onuska battled every step of the way. Fortunately, the home side put enough on the Sharks’ prospect to find a way to get the 2-0 series lead.
Spitfires Head to Sarnia for Games 3 and 4
With the Spitfires grabbing a 2-0 series lead, the focus now shifts to the Progressive Auto Sales Arena in Sarnia for Game 3 and Game 4 starting on Tuesday night. The clubs battled there five times this season with the Sting taking the last two meetings.
While the Sting have scored 36 goals in their last six home games, that will be a challenge against a Spitfires’ club that is clicking defensively at the right time. All season, Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard has stressed being able to win any type of game. While the club led the league in goals scored this season, the ability to win the low-scoring, defensive games is critical for playoff success.
In Games 1 and 2, the Spitfires found themselves in those battles. However, Onuska has been red hot (with veteran goaltender Xavier Medina supporting from the bench) and all four lines are rolling. The elite trio of Cuylle, Johnston, and Matthew Maggio combined for six points in Game 2, but they’ve had plenty of help. Josh Currie (brought in from the Battalion), Perrott, and Christopoulos have all contributed points, as did D’Amico, Zito, and Ryan Abraham.
Savard’s club ranked sixth in Canada, is suffocating at home but they’ve always wanted to be just as good on the road. Heading into a building where the Sting are comfortable, this is the Spitfires’ chance to prove they can play anywhere. If they want to end this series in four or five games, they need to continue to make life tough for Gaudreau while still supporting Onuska.
Game 3 is Tuesday night while Game 4 goes Thursday night with puck drops at 7:05 p.m.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.