As the OHL calendar turns to March, the Windsor Spitfires and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds are ready to butt heads in a fierce battle for West division supremacy. It starts Thursday night in Windsor as the Greyhounds take the five-hour bus ride to the WFCU Centre.
Coming into the 2016-17 season, the Spitfires knew they were all-in as 2017 Memorial Cup hosts. Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel brought in big names such as forwards Jeremiah Addison and Julius Nattinen to solidify the roster. They’re a veteran-laden roster with elite goaltending lead by sophomore Michael DiPietro.
In 2015-16, the Spitfires came close to the West division title only to lose out to Sarnia in the final month. This season, though, all eyes were on the division title, the Western Conference title and, perhaps, the OHL title.
The West division saw Saginaw and Flint looking to rebuild their clubs while the Sarnia Sting were hoping for a chance to contend again, but rebuilding wasn’t out of the question.
Then, there is Sault Ste. Marie.
Hounds Ready to Run
Before the season, the Hounds were a team with potential. They could compete, but, if they got the right returns, a run was possible.
In October, star forward Zach Senyshyn came back after illness, injury and a long look by the Bruins. The pure sniper had 45 goals for the Soo in 2015-16 and was Boston’s first-round pick in 2015. His return to the Hounds was key for their offence.
A few weeks later, the Hounds got another huge return – forward Blake Speers. The New Jersey Devils returned Speers to the OHL after a small taste of the NHL life. Speers, a third-round pick by the Devils in 2015, had 74 points in 68 games for the Hounds in 2015-16.
The additions of Speers and Senyshyn meant the Hounds were right in the division title talk. They had the offence to outscore teams at will, a reliable defence and veteran goaltender Joseph Raaymakers to shut the door. To date, Senyshyn and Speers have combined for 80 points in 71 games.
Veteran Bobby MacIntyre has also come out of nowhere with a career year. He has 69 points in 54 games, which is 20 points higher than his previous career high. Hounds’ fans weren’t expecting it, but they’ll certainly take it.
Battle for Playoff Longevity
With two elite teams comes a serious toe-to-toe battle between the teams for the division title. The Hounds sit in first place with a 41-15-2-1 record, good for 85 points. They’re 18-9-2-1 at home and 23-6 on the road. It’s the best road record in the league. Windsor is second in the division with a record of 36-15-5-3, good for 80 points. They hold a 23-4-1 record at home but are just 13-11-4-3 on the road.
With the red-hot Erie Otters leading the conference, though, a West division title is likely second-place in the conference.
Losing the West division title could mean fourth or fifth in the conference. This means a first-round date with either the London Knights or Owen Sound Attack, two of the elites in the OHL. They sit in third and fourth, respectively. Owen Sound is coming off of a 16-game winning streak that ended in February.
Winning the division, though, would mean facing off against the seventh seed in the opening round. Right now, that looks like either Flint or Sarnia.
Over the final two-and-a-half weeks of the season, both teams have nine games to go. Sault Ste. Marie has four games at home (Sarnia, Kitchener, Saginaw and London) with five on the road (Windsor, Guelph, Kitchener, Sudbury and Saginaw). Windsor has six at home (Sault, London, Sudbury, Erie, Flint and OS) and just three on the road (Sarnia twice and Saginaw).
While some games might seem like cakewalks, Flint beat the Hounds a month ago in the Sault and Windsor was upset by Sarnia last weekend at the WFCU Centre. The OHL is a strange beast and the old cliché of “anything can happen” is certainly a reality.
All Eyes on Key Weekend
This weekend will be a big test for both clubs. Windsor hosts Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday night in their sixth meeting of the season. The Hounds are 3-2 against Windsor this season with the teams splitting the two games so far in Windsor. Here is a clip of their game in Windsor in October:
After this game, Windsor welcomes London on Saturday afternoon. They finish off at home against Sudbury in a Sunday matinee. The Hounds, meanwhile, go from Windsor to Guelph before ending their trip on Sunday afternoon in Kitchener.
The Spitfires are in the Memorial Cup. This is already a guarantee. As good hosts, though, they want to do it the proper way – through the front door. It’s OHL title or bust. The Greyhounds aren’t going to make this easy, however, and have plans of their own. For the next couple of weeks, the two will fight tooth-and-nail for West division crown. The fun starts on Thursday night at 7:05 pm.