The top-seeded Windsor Spitfires are on the verge of lifting a decade-long frustration. After taking a 2-0 series lead on the eight-seed Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Western Conference first round, the club hit the road for a pair of games and now find themselves one game away from making history.
Coming into this series, the Spitfires were considered to be the heavy favourites. They were ranked sixth in Canada, had plenty of offence and depth, and head coach Marc Savard had them playing peak hockey. However, games still need to be played and the Sting refused to quit. They gave the favourites all they could handle in Games 1 and 2 at the WFCU Centre in Windsor despite the Spitfires coming out with the 2-0 lead. As the series shifted to Progressive Auto Sales Arena in Sarnia for Games 3 and 4, the youngsters were confident they could make this a real series. They came very close, too.
Let’s get into it…
Special Teams Props up Sting in Game 3
The story in Games 1 and 2 was special teams…or lack thereof.
After converting 26.1 percent on the power play this season, and 50 percent (20-for-40) against the Sting, the Spitfires were confident with the extra man. However, the Sting had scouted them extremely well and kept Savard’s club to a paltry 1-for-13 through the first two games. On the other hand, the Sting went scoreless in their own seven attempts so something had to give.
Very little changed for either lineup in Game 3 as Ben Gaudreau (San Jose Sharks) took the net for the Sting, while the Spitfires countered with Matt Onuska.
Just like Games 1 and 2, it was an early defensive battle despite the visitors leading on the shot clock. Spitfires’ rookie Ethan Miedema opened the scoring early in the second period but then it all fell apart.
The Spitfires got into penalty trouble and the home side took full advantage. The Sting were handed six power-play chances and scored four times. That was the most given up by Savard’s club all season. A normally rock-solid Spitfires’ penalty kill simply had no answer. They also struggled on their own power plays, going 0-for-5. The result was a 1-0 lead that quickly became a 2-2 game, and finally a 5-2 Sting win.
The Sting needed an opening in this series and found one. From timely saves to a potent power play, they were given a crack in the door and put their skates firmly in place. With the series now 2-1, it was time for the Spitfires to respond in Game 4 on Thursday night.
Spitfires Solve Gaudreau in Game 4
Coming into Game 4, the Spitfires had two goals: figure out their special teams and solve Gaudreau. The visitors couldn’t afford to let this slip away, either. If the Sting tied the series, all bets were off from here on out.
About 100 Spitfires fans made the trip to Sarnia for the game, but the hometown Sting made life tough for everyone right after the puck dropped.
Just two minutes into the game, Sting forward Angus MacDonnell beat Onuska to grab the 1-0 lead. After allowing three straight goals on Tuesday, it wasn’t the start the Spitfires wanted. However, the visitors found a new gear at intermission.
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Jacob Maillet beat Gaudreau early in the second period and he was followed by captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) and first-year forward Oliver Peer to give the Spitfires a 3-1 lead. The Sting went into desperation mode, trying to force the play and beat Onuska at any cost. It didn’t work, though.
The Spitfires put a wall up around Onuska, pressing the Sting into a perimeter game, creating frustration from the home side. Then, the dagger; midway through the third period, Cuylle and Wyatt Johnston beat Gaudreau on a two-on-one to make it 4-1. That was your final as the visitors and their fans celebrated the hard-earned win.
While the Spitfires’ power play still struggled, going 0-for-3 and failing to penetrate the Sting’s defence, they had some good looks, and that’s a positive. The club also shut down the Sting’s power play, which is a marked improvement over Game 3.
The win gives the Spitfires a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Quarter-Finals series. However, the job isn’t done yet.
Spitfires Prepare to Make History in Game 5
The 2011 Playoffs are forever etched in the mind of Spitfires fans. That was the last time the club won their first-round series, a 5-4 win in Game 7 against the Erie Otters. Strangely, the Spitfires were also up 3-1 in that series before losing two straight in overtime. Tom Kuhnhackl scored the game-winner in Game 7 on a scramble around the goal with under three minutes to go.
While the club got to the conference finals that season (losing to the Owen Sound Attack in five games), they’ve had nothing but issues since. Over six different playoffs, they’ve gone 6-24, including losing in Game 7 to the London Knights in 2017 after being up 3-1 in the series.
Now, after Thursday night’s win, the Spitfires have a chance to make history as they face the Sting in Game 5 on Saturday night in Windsor.
The home side is eager to prove why they led the conference, while the visitors are desperate to show that their 5-2 win in Game 3 was no fluke. It’ll be a challenge, though. It’s been 20 years since an eighth-seed advanced; the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors beat the Mississauga IceDogs in five games in 2002.
If the Spitfires want to finally break their first-round streak, they’ll need everyone to buy in and treat this like it’s do-or-die. The last thing they want to do is give the Sting any life, go back to Sarnia for Game 6, and risk a Game 7 where anything can happen. We’ve seen that song-and-dance before and it’s not always pretty. Savard’s club has all the momentum, plenty of confidence, and the backing of their fans. Can they finish this off?
Game 5 is scheduled for Saturday at 7:05 p.m.