Hockey is a game of lessons; you teach, you learn, and you grow. While the Windsor Spitfires have just started their 2022-23 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season, it’s still a process. The club had a busy weekend; they paid tribute to the past, learned a valuable lesson, welcomed an old friend, and got a glimpse of the future.
Four months ago, the Spitfires were celebrating winning the OHL’s Western Conference Championship (Wayne Gretzky Trophy) after beating the Flint Firebirds on home ice in Game 7. However, with success comes roster turnover and new lessons. Last weekend, Canadian Thanksgiving, they played host to the Sudbury Wolves and Soo Greyhounds (Thanksgiving Monday), with a quick trip to Saginaw to face the Spirit sandwiched in between. They earned six points and gave us five turkey takeaways.
5 Thanksgiving Weekend Takeaways
Thursday – 5-4 win over Wolves
Saturday – 5-4 win over Spirit
Monday – 3-2 overtime win over Greyhounds
Here are five takeaways from this busy weekend…
5. Never Assume a Lead is Safe
Before Thursday night’s game, the Spitfires raised a pair of 2022 championship banners to the WFCU Centre rafters. We’ll talk more about that below, but the energy from the ceremony lit a fire under their skates.
The Spitfires found themselves up 3-0 midway through the third period thanks to veteran forwards Oliver Peer and Chris O’Flaherty and defenceman Michael Renwick. With goaltender Mathias Onuska playing rock-solid hockey, it felt like a safe lead… until it wasn’t.
The Wolves pulled goaltender Joe Ranger with nine minutes left, creating an empty net and confusion for the Spitfires. While Alex Christopoulos found the open cage for a 4-0 game, there were still eight minutes left. The home side started to take their foot off the gas pedal a bit, giving the visitors just enough room to make a comeback.
Within three minutes, the Wolves added three to stun the home side and make it a 4-3 deficit. While Peer scored with 27-seconds left for a 5-3 lead, Djibril Toure scored with 16 seconds left for a 5-4 Spitfires final. It was their first win of the season.
The Wolves pulled a unique move to near perfection. The Spitfires were caught off guard and it nearly cost them. After the game, Peer said the team learned a lesson.
“We, myself included, let (Onuska) down tonight,” he said. “He was the best player on the ice, and his percentage took a big hit at the end … It was a pretty interesting move by (the Wolves). When Christopoulos got the empty net, we had to remind ourselves that there were still eight minutes left … I guess it was a good strategy by them.”
It’s a good early-season reminder – games are 60 minutes, and no lead is completely safe.
4. Banner Raising is a Motivation
Winning a conference championship is a huge thrill at any level. For the Spitfires, the 2022 Western Conference Championship was the club’s first since 2010 and, potentially, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these players. Before Thursday’s game, the team got a chance to raise the 2022 West Division Champion and 2022 Western Conference Champion (Wayne Gretzky Trophy) banners. The players went on the ice and watched as sparks flew, and the banners were raised to the WFCU Centre rafters.
After the game, Savard said they earned this chance and it was time to enjoy the moment.
“We finished the speech before we went out for the first to really enjoy the moment,” he said. “We battled hard; the guys from last year really know how much it took to get this… Really enjoying the moment is the big thing. It was a hard effort to get those banners and well deserved.”
Peer was all smiles talking about it. He made the club last September as a free agent and became an integral part of the forward unit by the playoffs. He said he saw himself in the tribute video.
“Last year was something else,” Peer said. “Especially in my first year, it was really cool to be a part of that.”
Most players get to watch banners go up via television or YouTube. To see it happen in front of you, knowing it’s fully possible to do it yourself, is something these players will take with them this season and beyond.
3. Maggio Ready to Lead
On Thursday, head coach Marc Savard hinted that overage (20-year-old) forward Matthew Maggio may be returning from his tryout in the New York Islanders system. On Friday, it came to fruition.
Maggio, 20, was drafted by the Islanders last July. After a chance to see how the NHL runs, he was sent to their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Bridgeport Islanders in late Sept. Following a brief look, he was sent back to the Spitfires on Friday, eager to continue his development.
The Tecumseh native had a breakout 2021-22, with 85 points in 66 games, playing primarily on the top line with Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) and Will Cuylle (New York Rangers). With Johnston making the Stars and Cuylle in the AHL, his offense, creativity, and leadership will be crucial in the room. He’ll use the knowledge he gained from the pros, both on and off the ice, and said he’s ready for the challenge.
“Everyone says ‘pro mentality’ but, growing up, you’re not really sure what that means,” he said on Monday. “There are no cheat meals, no McDonalds on an off day – they’re taking care of their bodies in every way. They make sure to get their vitamins, get to sleep on time, putting their phone away at a good hour. Honestly, it’s a 24-hour job … I have to do everything; it’s not just the 60 minutes on the ice.”
With Maggio’s return, the Spitfires now have three overagers (20-year-olds) locked up – him, Onuska, and Renwick. That leaves forward Josh Currie and goaltender Xavier Medina up in the air. Those decisions should come shortly, though.
2. Costanzo Shows Promise
The Spitfires’ goaltending situation seems to be finally settling down. Just two weeks after acquiring 17-year-old Joseph Costanzo from the Niagara IceDogs for a pair of picks, the Spitfires saw the youngster dress in his first game since April. He didn’t disappoint.
Costanzo has been Onuska’s backup since opening night and got his first start of the season on Monday against the Greyhounds. He made 35 saves in the 3-2 overtime win, showing confidence and poise. After the game, Savard called him a “gem.”
“He was fantastic,” Savard said. “Another gem that (general manager) Billy (Bowler), (director of scouting) Frank (Evola), and the rest of the scouting staff picked up for us. I could see the athleticism in practice. I grabbed him before the game tonight and said ‘kid, you were picked 24th for a reason. Feel confident and have that swagger.’ He goes, ‘Actually, I was 23rd’ (laughs) … What a great game and, if he can continue to push Onuska like that, it’ll be great for the team.”
Related: Defending OHL’s Western Title: Windsor Spitfires’ 2022-23 Preview
Costanzo said the team has been very welcoming and, despite some nerves from having not played since April, he was ready for this.
“Getting the start today, I was really excited. The guys really pumped me up today and the whole week,” he said after the game. “First game with a new team, the first game of the year, maybe a few butterflies. Once you make the first save, it’s game on from there … we’re excited for the future.”
Costanzo is eligible for the 2023 NHL Draft and looking to make the most of this chance. He’ll be given every opportunity to succeed behind Onuska and, while he only has one game played so far, nobody can complain about the results.
1. Rookies Adjusting Quickly
Transitioning between two eras of your life is never an easy task. When you’re 16 or 17, going from midget hockey to the OHL can be daunting. For three Spitfires rookies, though, the report cards are looking good.
The club’s 2022 picks – defenceman Anthony Cristoforo and forwards Liam Greentree and A.J. Spellacy – know that ice time is earned. While they’ll be given every chance to succeed, they need to learn and absorb as much as they can from the veterans and coaches. Cristoforo sits next to Renwick, 20, in the room and said the veteran has been a huge help.
“He has been a mentor to me ever since I got here,” Cristoforo said on Monday. “I sit beside him in the room. He gives me some advice, and I look up to him in a way with how he is on and off the ice … He’s a team player; he has an ‘A’ on his jersey for a reason. Him sticking up for me (altercation on Monday). I love it.”
The OHL is a weekend-based league; games from Thursday to Sunday are normal. The Spitfires have 19 three-game weekends on their schedule this season and Thanksgiving was their first. It’s not an easy task, but Savard said the rookies have adjusted well.
“It’s a good building block for the guys,” he said after Monday’s game. “Especially the younger guys, knowing you have to prepare and be ready every night … the kids (2022 picks) are figuring it out. We’ve got a good crop, and we’re lucky to have that.”
We saw what a tight-knit group could do last season. It’s very early, but the club will be in good shape if that continues. With the busy weekend behind them and six points in their pockets, the Spitfires now hop on the bus for their first road trip of the season. They’ll take on the Sarnia Sting on Friday night before heading to Owen Sound to face the Attack on Saturday.