It’s hard to believe that April starts this week and clubs in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Western Conference are realizing that the 2021-22 playoff race is no joke. The Windsor Spitfires find themselves near the top of the conference after a big week but also understand that letting off the gas could be disastrous. Fortunately, they have some surprise help that may become the X-factor.
The Spitfires came into 2021-22 with plenty of uncertainty because of significant roster turnover and new coaches. While they were ranked in the CHL Top 10 as the season got going, it took a while for them to find their groove. After the January trade deadline, though, it’s been full steam ahead and they’ve charged into contender status in the conference. Now, with fewer than a dozen games left in the regular season, they’ve made it back into the CHL Top-10 discussion and are pressing for their first conference title in over 10 seasons.
Let’s dig in…
Spitfires Offence Saves the Day
After sweeping the first-place Flint Firebirds, the Spitfires entered the week with their eyes on a playoff spot and first place. They had two chances to get both of them done at home – Tuesday against the seventh-place Kitchener Rangers and Thursday against the last-place Saginaw Spirit. Neither could be taken lightly, though.
The games were nearly identical – no defence, just goals. Tuesday night, the Spitfires gained numerous leads, only to see the Rangers find a way back for a 5-5 draw. Fortunately, winning 17-of-18 at home creates confidence. Forwards Matthew Maggio and Daniel D’Amico each scored in the third as the home side took the 7-5 win.
Thursday was much of the same against the Spirit. The Spitfires jumped out to 3-1 and 5-3 leads, only to see their opponent come back just enough to create a scare. Fortunately, Wyatt Johnston scored the lone goal in the third period for an 8-5 final.
After outscoring their opponents 15-10 in two games, it’s clear that the Spitfires can score at will. However, they took the Spirit lightly and it almost cost them. Head coach Marc Savard said he told the group that you can’t take teams lightly but, sometimes, games like this happen. That wasn’t lost on rookie forward Ethan Miedema, who had three points.
“It’s the OHL, not minor hockey anymore,” Miedema said on Thursday.
“You can’t take any teams lightly.”
Rookie defenceman Nick De Angelis, who scored against the Spirit by pinching with Miedema, admitted that when the Spirit were struggling defensively, it was hard not to get involved.
“Sometimes we can cheat a bit and not take our defensive responsibilities seriously,” he said.
“We all had some lapses, including myself. It was a team thing and we’ll be much better on the weekend.”
Playoff Spot Clinched
Tuesday night’s win over the Rangers not only clinched a spot in the 2022 OHL Playoffs but also catapulted them past the Firebirds for the top seed in the Western Conference. Savard said getting that spot was a recent goal and it’s a credit to everyone in the room.
“It’s a goal we set out recently because it was within striking distance,” he said.
“I gotta credit the guys in the room and the coaching staff. They’ve all dug down; it’s been a tough stretch.”
Savard added that it’s been important for them all season to aim for home ice. They’ve won 19-of-20 now at the WFCU Centre and their goal at the beginning of 2021-22 was to make life miserable for opponents, kind of like it was at the old Windsor Arena.
“We want to make this a tough building to come visit and I think we’ve done that,” he said. “We don’t want teams coming in here and having any fun and we’ve been able to put a stop to most of that.”
Part of that comes from the chemistry within the team. Talent is great but cohesion is vital. Defenceman Michael Renwick said their group was tight and that really helped their on-ice performance.
“We’ve got a really tight group, everyone is friends with everyone, regardless of age,” he said on Tuesday. “Just things like Tuesday movies or bowling, we try to do something with everyone included. These last two road trips were great opportunities for all the guys to get another guy a little better. You grow closer when you’re in close quarters on the bus. If you’re close to a guy, you want them to succeed.”
Medina Returns as Spitfires Sweep in Great White North
The Spitfires had a big addition to the club last week when veteran goaltender Xavier Medina returned to the lineup following a nearly month-long absence.
For most of March, Medina was quietly scratched and the club wouldn’t elaborate other than pointing to general manager Bill Bowler. However, he returned to the lineup against the Spirit and played in relief, stopping all 10 shots. After the game, Savard said the original plan was to get Medina a start this weekend.
Saturday night, the Spitfires made their way into the GFL Memorial Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie, winners of five-of-six this season against the fourth-seeded Greyhounds. While the teams were evenly matched, Savard’s club always seems to find a way.
Related: OHL/NHL Alum Marc Savard Named Windsor Spitfires’ New Head Coach
Medina got the start on Saturday night and did exactly what his club needed. While the Greyhounds got a couple of early goals, the veteran shut the door the rest of the way, giving the Spitfires all the support they needed. Spitfires’ captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) led the way with the hat-trick, Johnston (Dallas Stars) added three points, and Medina made 15 saves for the 5-3 win.
While Mathias Onuska got the start for the Spitfires on Sunday, the results didn’t change. Johnston had another two points, veteran Daniel D’Amico had a pair of goals, and the Greyhounds couldn’t match the visitor’s overall talent. Despite a pair of power play goals, the home side never led and fell 5-4 in a heartbreaker.
These weren’t the prettiest of wins. While the Spitfires’ offence was lethal, they had to grind for every inch of ice and their defence tired as Sunday’s game went on. However, both games had the chaotic, trash-talking playoff feel and coming away with four points was a big step towards their hopes of both a division and conference title.
Road Tests No Joke as Spitfires Aim for Conference Title
The Spitfires now return home briefly as the final eight games of the regular season begin. While they’ve found plenty of success at home going 23-7-1-1, their 15-9-2-2 road record isn’t as generous. They’ll have to get used to the suitcase life, though.
It all gets underway on Thursday as the Sarnia Sting come to town. The Spitfires are just 2-2 at home against them and all four contests had at least a three-goal differential. With the visitors battling for the final playoff spot, this is one that Savard’s club cannot treat like a guaranteed two points.
Following the game, the Spitfires pack up the bus and hit the road for an April Fools (Friday) match with Francesco Pinelli and the Rangers, followed by a Saturday night tilt against the Owen Sound Attack.
The Rangers are 6-4 in their last 10 and won both contests at home against Savard’s club this season, outscoring them 10-5. They’re fighting for the last playoff spot as well. Meanwhile, the Spitfires beat the Attack in their last meeting, a 6-5 overtime thriller in Owen Sound.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Spitfires were ranked ninth in the CHL Top 10 and Savard has them playing their best hockey of the season. While there are areas to improve on during the final eight games, their offence leads the OHL in goals and has been nothing short of remarkable. However, if they want to capture their first conference title since 2009-10, it’s going to take a total team effort and some points on the road.
Puck drop on Thursday is 7:30 PM. What about playoff tickets? Those go on sale at 12:01 AM on Apr. 9 and fans are encouraged to wear red at games. More information will be released in the future and we’ll keep you updated.