OHL West Conference Final: Spitfires & Firebirds Collide, Series Tied 1-1

Dealing with adversity is a necessity in sports. After a tough opener in their 2022 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Western Conference Final on Saturday against the third-seeded Flint Firebirds, the top-seeded Windsor Spitfires made a statement in Game 2 on Monday, showing that they thrive off a good challenge. As a result, the tone has been set for the rest of the series.

Coming into the Conference Final, the Spitfires have had some explosive games but rarely looked like the team that won 13-of-15 to end the regular season. When you’re the top seed in the conference and lead the league in goals (305), a certain level of play is expected. They didn’t get that in the first round against the eighth-seeded Sarnia Sting, despite winning in six, and saw a small taste of it against the seventh-seeded Kitchener Rangers. Now, after shaking off some rust, the Spitfires seem to be finding their game and it has come at the right time.

Let’s unpack the opening pair…

Spitfires’ Blunders Cost Game 1

While having a week off between games can mean plenty of time for rest and recovery, it also creates an opportunity for rust. Both the Spitfires and the Firebirds found that out the hard way on Saturday as the teams got ready for Game 1 of this massive series. They each finished their second-round series a week earlier so, while they knew each other very well, it was going to take some time to get into the flow of things.

Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard had his game plan ready to go – throw the body and pepper Firebirds’ veteran goaltender Luke Cavallin. It’s the style of game that has usually worked for his club. However, rust tends to mean miscues, too.

Marc Savard Windsor Spitfires
Head coach Marc Savard has instilled significant confidence in his roster. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

While the home side was doing their part offensively, it was the defence that saw early issues. A turnover near their blue line promptly gave the Firebirds a golden chance and they took full advantage for a 1-0 lead. Fortunately, that didn’t last for long as the Spitfires scored a pair (Wyatt Johnston and Ryan Abraham) with the man advantage to go up 2-1. While the crowd loved it, the energy was short-lived.

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More defensive breakdowns cost the Spitfires with odd-man rushes and defensive blunders. They surrendered the next three goals and were suddenly down 4-2. While they threw everything on Cavallin and managed to get the game to 4-3, it wasn’t enough, as the Firebirds took Game 1.

Offensively, Savard’s club did the little things right. They fired 38 on Cavallin, scored a pair on the power play, and looked strong on the forecheck. However, when you cough up the puck multiple times and allow prime odd-man rushes, the Firebirds are going to take full advantage. Live, learn, and get ready for Game 2 on Monday.

Maggio Makes Statement in Game 2

Despite the loss, the Spitfires had plenty to build on from Game 1. They executed offensively, played physically, and just needed to tighten up defensively.

Game 2 started off with a bang with some old-school rock ’em, sock ’em hockey. The Spitfires weren’t playing around, hitting everything in sight and firing 16 shots on Cavallin in the first 20 minutes. He was the Firebirds’ rock, though, and turned away almost everything.

A scrum near the Firebirds’ bench late in the period resulted in a five-minute major to Spitfires’ rookie Avval Baisov. However, it was the home side that struck first. Captain Will Cuylle took a pass from Johnston, broke in short-handed, and buried his seventh past Cavallin for a 1-0 lead.

Will Cuylle Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ captain Will Cuylle. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

In the second period, Tecumseh-native Matthew Maggio, who scored 38 in the regular season, scored his second and third of the playoffs for a 3-0 lead. Cuylle added his second of the night while goaltender Mathias Onuska stopped 21-of-22 in the frame for a 4-1 Spitfires’ lead after 40. The club scored three more in the third, including Maggio capping off his hat-trick, for a convincing 7-2 win.

After the game, Maggio said they’ve shown their true colours when their backs are against the wall.

“All year, when we’re faced with adversity, our real character comes out,” he said. “I think that’s a credit to the coaches and the types of guys we have in the locker room. There’s a sense of confidence in the group … That’s a big thing for us, staying together as a team and playing together and I think that showed tonight.”

From start to finish, the Spitfires made a statement. This was as close to 90s-style Windsor Arena hockey as we’ve seen in years. However, they can’t ease up in Games 3 and 4.

Heading to Flint for Games 3 and 4

Game 2 was a huge momentum swing for the Spitfires and they’ll need that confidence as the series switches to the Dort Financial Center in Flint, MI for Game 3 on Wednesday and Game 4 on Friday.

While Monday’s win was big, it’s just one win. You can’t get too high and Savard said they’ve been able to keep a level head about it all season.

“We’ve been excellent about that all year,” Savard said. “We won 13-straight to end the season and every night we seemed to roll over. The next day wasn’t a problem. We kept a pretty even keel … We have a practice before we head up there and that’ll be part of the message … at the end of the day, we’re going to get a better Firebirds’ team. They’re a great team over there so we’ll be ready for Wednesday.”

The Spitfires went 3-0-0-1 in Flint this season, outscoring the home side 21-8. However, the Firebirds, led by captain Brennan Othmann, are 6-1 at home in the playoffs, outscoring opponents 35-19.

Brennan Othmann Flint Firebirds
Brennan Othmann of the Flint Firebirds. (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

This is a confident team at home and Firebirds’ head coach Ted Dent said one loss is just that.

“We won one game here and go back with a split,” Dent said. “The guys are really excited to play at home … we accomplished what we wanted to do on this trip. Yeah, it was a big score today but, whether it’s 1-0 or 7-2, a loss is a loss. We regroup and get ready for the next game.”

If the Spitfires want to come back to Windsor on Sunday (Game 5) with a series lead, they’ll need to press the gas pedal. The Firebirds are hungry to prove Game 2 was a fluke. This series is just getting warmed up.

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