There’s an old sports cliche that it’s harder to stay at the top than it is to get there. The Windsor Spitfires are finding that out pretty quick. Taking a six-game winning streak into last weekend, they slipped up just enough to learn a valuable lesson and now head on the road for two tough contests.
Going from the eighth seed in 2018-19 to first in the Western Conference isn’t an easy task. The Spitfires fought their way to the top through the first month-and-a-half of the season, earning a No. 8 ranking in the CHL top 10 for the first week of November. They learned it’s a nice place to be but a very hard place to remain.
A temporary lapse in judgment cost them last weekend and now they’ve got a chance to get back on track as they hit the road for a pair of games.
Tough Battle with Battalion
If there’s one thing OHL fans know, it’s that you can’t count out a Stan Butler team. The long-time head coach and general manager of the North Bay Battalion always has his troops working hard, even during struggles.
The Spitfires welcomed the Battalion to town on Saturday night, riding a six-game winning streak. While Butler’s crew had lost eight-straight, they always create havoc for the opposition. This night was no different.
Spitfires’ head coach Trevor Letowski hit the gas pedal in the first, hoping to take advantage of the struggles. It worked as a Cole Purboo goal gave them a 1-0 lead after 20. That’s where the fun ended, though.
Luke Moncada, Brad Chenier, and Brandon Coe each had multi-point second periods as the Battalion stormed back, taking a 4-1 lead after 40. While the Spitfires are known for their comebacks, being three goals behind a last-placed club was far from the expectations.
Whatever Letowski said in the dressing room between periods seemed to work. His team went on a rampage, putting 23 shots on Battalion goaltender Christian Cicigoi. Curtis Douglas and Will Cuylle each had a pair of goals, while Jean-Luc Foudy added the empty netter with just over a minute left. The streak was still on as the Spitfires take another come-from-behind win, 6-4.
It was a bittersweet confidence booster. On one hand, they beat a struggling Battalion club and stayed in first place. However, an effort like they gave in the second period would likely come back to haunt them if they were facing a tougher opponent.
Spirit Shock in Overtime
There was little time to celebrate as the Spitfires welcomed the Saginaw Spirit to town in a Sunday matinee. A single point separated the clubs.
Over 4,200 fans were on hand as the Spitfires honoured Remembrance Day with a classy pre-game ceremony, including a colour party, a large Canadian flag at center ice, and a video tribute.
Following the ceremony, the puck dropped and the craziness unfolded.
Just like Saturday, the Spitfires came out strong, grabbing a 12-5 shot lead after 20 minutes. This time, though, the game was tied at one.
Also just like Saturday, the Spitfires found themselves in trouble in the second period. The Spirit put 14 shots on goaltender Kari Piiroinen, getting goals from Cole Coskey and 2020 NHL Draft prospect Cole Perfetti. Egor Afanasyev added his seventh of the season in the frame, but it was 3-2 Spirit after 40.
The third period was a wild ride. The Spitfires scored four goals in 10 minutes, grabbing the lead and giving themselves a solid cushion. Being up 6-3 with two minutes left should have been enough, right?
The Spirit had other plans. In a scene straight out of “D3: The Mighty Ducks”, they pulled a “Blake freshman Bears” and refused to go down.
Blade Jenkins scored with 1:40 left, cutting the deficit to 6-4. He was followed by Jake Goldowski 29 seconds later and Damien Giroux with less than two seconds left on the clock. A silence came over the crowd as the Spirit tied it 6-6.
In overtime, Spirit veteran Riley Webb skated in uncontested on Piiroinen, snapping a shot glove side for the 7-6 win. The Spitfires’ seven-game winning streak was over in dramatic fashion.
It was one of the most surprising losses in recent Spitfires’ memory. Where do they go from here?
Earning Road Redemption
Losses like this are necessary for a team. It sounds rough right now but learning how to deal with this situation is a plus. The Spitfires got too comfortable against the Spirit and it cost them. Easing up isn’t an option when you’re on top.
A week ago, the Spitfires gave a 60-minute effort in a 10-2 win against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. There was no let-up and that’s the effort needed every night.
Now, the club hits the road in hopes of finding some redemption.
On Friday night, they head to Pennsylvania for a match with Jamie Drysdale and Erie Otters. The teams have split two meetings this season with each team winning at home.
Saturday, they make their way to St. Catharine’s for a game with the Niagara IceDogs, who are 4-5-1 at home. The Spitfires haven’t won there since 2010-11 (0-6-1-1).
While the Spitfires are unbeaten in their last eight in regulation, the final minute against the Spirit left a bad taste in their mouth. Closing out games has been a staple of the club this season and this is where Letowski, captain Luke Boka, and the entire leadership group steps up and takes control.
Games will be lost but it’s how you respond that matters. Despite the loss, the Spitfires remain in a three-way tie for first in the Western Conference with at least one game-in-hand. They can’t afford to get down on themselves.
By working on tightening up their defence (11 goals against in the last two games), and maintaining their focus, another winning streak isn’t out of the question.
Start by focusing on this weekend. The Spitfires got to this point for a reason. Learn from the past, grow from it, and move forward.