OHL Western Conference Final: Spitfires Split in Flint, Series 2-2

The Windsor Spitfires and Flint Firebirds are living up to the hype. The 2022 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Western Conference Final has been everything a hockey fan could dream of. After splitting the first two games in Windsor, the teams went into the trenches in Flint, MI, this week. They came out tied again, turning the series into a best-of-three.

The Spitfires have seen some tough games throughout the playoffs. Their first-round series with the eighth-seeded Sarnia Sting went six games, and their second-round series with the seventh-seeded Kitchener Rangers was five back-and-forth slugfests. After splitting the opening two games against the Firebirds at the WFCU Center in Windsor, the club knew that this was going to be one for the ages. They’re evenly matched, and it’s 90’s style Windsor Arena rock ’em sock ’em hockey. While the home side took Game 2 by a landslide, they also knew that the visitors weren’t going to roll over at home during Games 3 and 4. This series was just getting warmed up.

Firebirds Come Back in Game 3

Coming into Game 3 on Wednesday, Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard knew that they needed to keep pushing after their dominant 7-2 win at home in Game 2. The Dort Financial Center in Flint is intimidating, and the Firebirds had gone 6-1 there in the playoffs.

Early in the game, the Spitfires used the momentum to the fullest by throwing everything at goaltender Luke Cavallin. Veteran Daniel D’Amico opened the scoring under seven minutes into the period and the visitors added two more for a 3-0 lead.

Windsor Spitfires Daniel D'Amico
Windsor Spitfires’ veteran Daniel D’Amico. (Dave Jewell/THW)

However, that’s when it fell apart.

An incident between Firebirds’ veteran Riley Piercey and Spitfires’ veteran Josh Currie got the home side fired up and they capitalized a minute later. The 3-0 game became 3-1 after 20 and felt very different. The home side then suffocated the visitors in the second, outshooting them 22-9 and putting three more past goaltender Mathias Onuska for a 4-3 lead.

While the Spitfires pressed in the third, outshooting the Firebirds 16-10, Cavallin stood his ground. His club then added two empty-net goals to seal the 6-3 win and grab a 2-1 series lead.

The Spitfires underestimated the Firebirds, and it cost them. Savard said it’s a good lesson to learn.

“In the second period, we might have thought it was going to be easy and we paid for it,” he said. “It’s a good lesson along the way.”

After a rough Game 2, the Firebirds felt they were pushed around. Head coach Ted Dent said that wasn’t happening again.

“Windsor tried to bully us last game … and run us out of the building,” he said. “We stood up for ourselves tonight and punched them right back in the face. It’s part of hockey. The Piercey (incident) got the crowd going … It takes off from there.”

Spitfires Persevere, Tie Series

When you allow six-straight goals to end a game, the only acceptable response is pushback.

In front of a full house in Flint for Game 4 on Friday, the Spitfires immediately pounced on the Firebirds. Just 21-seconds in, Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) beat Cavallin and he was followed by captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) and D’Amico for a 3-0 lead after 20.

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The memories from Wednesday were still fresh, though. The Spitfires got into penalty trouble, and the Firebirds capitalized. A pair of power-play goals early in the second had the crowd roaring and the visitors scrambling. Was this going to happen again?

Wyatt Johnston Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ forward Wyatt Johnston. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

In the third, the Spitfires regained their composure and stifled the Firebirds, allowing just eight shots. They also found the empty net to finish off the 4-2 win, tying the series 2-2.

While the penalties were lopsided (Firebirds had a 7-2 power-play advantage), Savard said he got the team refocused in the second intermission.

“I told them this is fun, this is what we play hockey for,” he said. “Enjoy the moment … I’m 44 and a little bit overweight, but I look back on the days and I love it. Really enjoy the moment … The guys went out there and I was really happy with their third period.”

From the first line to the fourth, Johnston said everyone did their part and one incident really got them going.

“I think every guy did what they could to help the team win,” he said. “(Defenceman Nicholas) DeAngelis stepping up and fighting, that really got us going in the second. There wasn’t one guy who didn’t do what they could to help the team win tonight.”

It’s now a best-of-three with the Eastern Conference Champion Hamilton Bulldogs patiently waiting.

Spitfires Regain Home Ice

With the series tied again, the Spitfires get that all-important home-ice advantage back. They went 25-7-1-1 at the WFCU Centre in the regular season, including winning 21-of-22 at the end, plus are 5-2-1 in the playoffs. Throw in 5,000 fans and it’s an intimidating rink.

Windsor Spitfires
A packed WFCU Centre in Windsor can be one of the loudest in the OHL. (Photo by Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

Savard said that was one of their goals coming into Game 4.

“That was the goal here tonight,” he said. “Get us even, go back to our amazing crowd. I know they’re going to support us and it’s going to be a fun game.”

One of the Spitfires’ strong points has been their starts. In every game this series, they’ve jumped out to a lead, including 3-0 in Games 2, 3, and 4. However, holding that lead has been an issue. Outside of the 7-2 blowout in Game 2, Savard’s club has been outscored 10-1 in the second and third periods. Firebirds’ captain Brennan Othmann said on Friday that getting a better start could make or break their series.

“That seems to be our weak point right now,” he said.

“Our second and third periods are our best periods. Now it’s time to figure out the first … our guys need to do a better job, get more dialed in. We can’t wait for the end of the period; have to go right away. We need to figure it out real fast or else we’ll be in trouble.”

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

Game 5 is set for Sunday at 7 p.m. while Game 6 will be back in Flint on Tuesday at 7 p.m. If a Game 7 is necessary, it would be Wednesday night at the WFCU Centre.