When life gets turned upside down, having personal comforts can go a long way for your mental well-being. The 2021-22 Windsor Spitfires’ schedule has been anything but normal with COVID-19 postponements and weekly uncertainty. However, a return to (somewhat) normal combined with some much-needed home cooking may be just what the doctor ordered for the club.
The Spitfires’ post-Christmas schedule has been chaotic, with games postponed and COVID-19-related scratches regularly. All of this while trying to maintain a competitive mentality. However, despite being in contention in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Western Conference standings, there are still some hurdles to overcome. This past weekend, they welcomed back a big part of the club but struggled to get much done on the ice.
Here I’ve unwrapped the first week of February.
Fans See Spitfires Weather Storm
After sweeping a pair of games last weekend, the Spitfires entered the first weekend of February with confidence and momentum. They needed both, walking into a tough three-game weekend to start the month. Less than a week after a 3-2 road win against the Guelph Storm, the two teams met up at the WFCU Centre for a rematch on Thursday night.
It was also a special night as fans were allowed into the WFCU Centre for the first time since mid-December. Ontario COVID-19 regulations started lifting on Jan. 31, and 500 fans are now allowed in OHL rinks.
Spitfire’s head coach Marc Savard said that, while 500 isn’t a lot, it’s a boost to the club.
“It’s just great to have fans back,” he said. “It was tough playing without them.”
The Storm disappointed fans early, leading the shot clock 17-7 after 20 minutes and taking a 2-1 lead into the room. However, thanks to the Spitfires’ offensive depth, that was as close as they would get. The home side woke up and peppered goaltender Owen Bennett for four goals on 29 shots in the final 40 minutes for a convincing 5-2 win. It was a nice way to welcome back the fans.
Dallas Stars’ prospect Wyatt Johnston led the way with three points, while captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) and Matthew Maggio each had a pair. Scoring five against the Storm was big for their confidence, and the Spitfires needed it as they headed to London on Friday night to take on the Knights. There aren’t many bigger “classic” matchups than this.
The Brochu Effect
There’s something about Knights goaltender Brett Brochu that haunts the Spitfires. For one reason or another, the club can’t find the magic potion to get two points against him. Coming into Friday night’s game at the Budweiser Gardens in London, the veteran had won all three meetings and allowed just six goals on 108 shots. It’s gone from a talent thing to a mental game.
While the Spitfires were ready to prove they could beat the Belle River-native, they hurt themselves with a poor start. The Knights scored an early power-play marker on veteran Xavier Medina before adding two more before the buzzer sounded for a 3-0 lead.
That was all Brochu needed. While the Spitfires stuck with it, firing 30 shots in the final two periods, they could only get one past the Knights’ netminder. He stifled the visitors from all angles, and his club added two more in the third for a 5-1 win.
Normally, a 5-1 win would mean pure domination, but the Spitfires outshot the Knights 42-34. They hung with them for the second and third periods. However, a rough start followed by Brochu’s dominance led to more questions and frustration. This was a top offence (the Spitfires are third in the West in goals scored) versus top defence (Knights tops in West in goals against) battle and, on this night, the defence won. Now it’s up to the offence to find a way.
Spitfires’ Defence Goes Missing Against Sting
The Spitfires had a chance to right their wrongs as they finished the weekend at home on Sunday evening against the Sarnia Sting. While the home side had a 4-2 record in head-to-head meetings this season, the visitors were fighting for the final playoff spot and created more questions than answers.
Savard’s club had issues matching the Sting’s work ethic but managed a 2-1 lead midway through the game, thanks to a pair from Cuylle. However, that’s when everything went wrong. The Sting capitalized on the Spitfires’ poor defensive coverage to score twice before the second period ended for a shocking 3-2 lead. From there, the Sting were relentless, scoring three unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes while goaltender Ben Gaudreau shut the door for the 6-2 win.
Goaltender Mathias Onuska allowed five goals on 26 shots but this wasn’t on him. From missed defensive coverage to a lack of offensive chances, it was a team effort. Spitfires defenceman Andrew Perrott said the Sting didn’t let up: “We blocked quite a few shots, and Onuska played on his head … but they just kept coming-and-coming. They got pucks behind our defence and forechecking us really well. I think, collectively, we need to figure out how to wear down a team that’s coming at us like that.”
Games like this will happen. However, it’s learning from them that’s key. Johnston said this is the type of game they’ll look back on.
“You definitely need to learn from losses like these and learn where we made our mistakes,” he said. “We definitely need to look back and know what we need to improve on. You only learn from losing, so just looking back and trying to get past it and take this as a lesson.”
Spitfires Begin Homestand
Sunday’s game was big for the standings, but it also marked a key date on the Spitfires’ calendar. From the Sting game until Mar. 10, the club will play nine of their twelve games at home with only single-day trips on the road sprinkled throughout. A good bout of home cooking and fan support will be welcomed with open arms.
The journey continues this Thursday when the club welcomes the Saginaw Spirit to town. In late November, the teams split a pair of 6-5 games, followed by the Spitfires taking a hard-fought 7-5 win on the road just before Christmas. While the games involved multi-goal comebacks – and were sloppy pond hockey – they were at least entertaining. Did either team learn from their previous mistakes, though?
The Spirit have been struggling this season; they are tied with the Erie Otters for last in the conference and a single point back of the Sting for the final playoff spot. However, both the Otters and Sting have games in hand.
Savard’s club wraps up the weekend on Saturday with a rematch against the Knights. It’s far too early to say this is a “must-win”, but the Spitfires need to solve Brochu once-and-for-all. Yes, he’s one of the best in the country, but he’s not invincible. Johnston, Cuylle, and the rest of the offence need to find a way to beat him. Getting that single win could be the mental victory they need and, if the teams meet in the playoffs, a crack in the armour can turn into a series win.
Thursday’s game is set for 7:35 PM, while Saturday is 7:05 PM.