While the Windsor Spitfires’ 2017-18 season ended earlier than desired, there are still plenty of positives to look back on.
From emerging young defencemen to forwards with plenty of hope, and plenty in between, this rebuilding team has a bright future.
While there were some frustrations, with every season comes some impressive performances. They’re players or situations that stand out among the rest.
Earlier in the month, the Spitfires handed out their team awards. We thought we would follow suit and hand out some of our own.
The following are a handful of team and individual awards for the Spitfires for the 2017-18 season. Are they accurate or was someone else more deserving? Let us know!
Best Rookie Forward – Mathew MacDougall
Mathew MacDougall had a choice before the season – the Spitfires or NCAA. He chose the Spitfires and hasn’t looked back.
The Spitfires acquired the now 18-year-old winger from the Barrie Colts in June in exchange for a 14th round pick in 2018 and a conditional fourth round pick in 2020. If MacDougall played in one game for the Spitfires, that pick went into effect. It’s safe to say the Spitfires don’t mind giving that pick up right now.
After 37 points in 58 games for St. Andrew’s College in 2016-17, the five-foot-nine 159-pound MacDougall fit right into the Spitfires lineup in 2017-18. He scored 17 goals and 32 points in 66 games for the club, seeing plenty of ice time in all offensive situations.
Here’s a clip of MacDougall scoring his first OHL hat-trick in Feb.:
MacDougall is the type of player the team wants to build around and he could be in for a huge 2018-19 season.
Best Rookie Defenceman – Lev Starikov
When the Spitfires’ drafted Lev Starikov in the 2017 CHL Import Draft, nobody really knew what to expect. The six-foot-seven 200-pound Russian came advertised as a kid who had potential but was still quite raw.
What a difference a year makes.
After a slow start to the season, Starikov has adjusted very well to the North American game and is called upon in key game situations.
He only scored two points before December but finished with seven points through Feb. and Mar.
Starikov proved reliable in his own end, tying forward Curtis Douglas for the team lead in plus-minus with a plus-14 rating. When teammates needed a hand, too, few would want to get involved with Starikov. Realistically, finding someone his own size wasn’t easy.
The Spitfires have a young defence and Starikov is at the heart of it. He’s not flash-and-dash but he gets the job done effectively.
Unsung Hero – Luke Boka
Every team needs that heart-and-soul type that can do a bit of everything and gives everything he has. They don’t always get the accolades but you know when they’re on the ice.
For the Spitfires, this is Luke Boka.
Drafted in the fifth round by the Spitfires in 2015, Boka came advertised as a kid who hit like a truck and could put a few pucks in the net. The coaching staff raved about him and he’s lived up to the hype.
After a 28-point season in 2016-17, Boka exploded for 40 points in 2017-18. He’s the grinder when the team needs a goal, the energy guy when the game is tied and the first guy to block a shot on the penalty kill. Boka takes the Spitfires colours – blue and red – to heart.
Given the Alternate Captain’s “A” this season, this is a kid that defines what it means to be a Spitfire. You won’t see him make highlight reels every week but when the Spitfires win a close game, you know he was a big part of the effort.
MVP – Michael DiPietro
It’s tough to imagine where this Spitfires’ team would be without goaltender Michael DiPietro.
Drafted in the second round in 2015, DiPietro won the starting role early in 2015-16 and never looked back. It was his crease, his arena and his team, and nobody argued.
In 2017-18, after guiding the Spitfires to the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup, there was talk that DiPietro could be moved at the trade deadline. The team banked points and, despite plenty of rumours, kept DiPietro all season.
The result was the Spitfires earning the sixth seed in the Western Conference. DiPietro set the team record for shutouts in a season with seven and kept the Spitfires in every game that he could.
Without him, it’s like the Spitfires fall out of the playoffs altogether.
During the playoffs, DiPietro stood on his head with a .934 save percentage in six games against the Sarnia Sting.
While the Sting won the series, DiPietro faced 242 shots for an average of 40.33 shots per game.
The Spitfires have a young team that has plenty of potential. Those kids are learning the ropes from one of the best in the game. The one they call “Mikey.”
Fan Favourite – Michael DiPietro
When you draft a local player, you hope that he can become a part of the community. What’s happened with DiPietro, though, is on another level.
The Amherstburg-native was a popular minor hockey player before he joined the Spitfires. Now, he’s one of the most popular Spitfires to grace the ice.
From visiting schools to charity events, DiPietro represents the Spitfires to perfection, and the community loves him just as much.
Last summer, DiPietro became the first person to be given a Key to the Town of Amherstburg. The Vancouver Canucks’ prospect was humbled by it and continues to be a person who seems to enjoy every second he gets with the fans.
It’s not certain how long DiPietro will remain in the area but there’s no question – he’s become one of the biggest fan favourites the Spitfires have seen in a long time.
Most Improved – Curtis Douglas
When the Spitfires dealt captain Aaron Luchuk to the Barrie Colts in Dec., they knew it was a big deal. Little did fans know how big it really was, though.
Coming back to the Spitfires, along with several picks, was the six-foot-eight 234-pound winger Douglas. At just 17-years-old, Douglas was coming off a nine-point season in 2016-17, but his potential was far greater.
In 28 games for the Colts, Douglas scored 18 points and was considered an intriguing prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft. After the trade, he found his stride.
Douglas added 15 goals and 28 points in 38 games with the Spitfires, along with becoming an instant hit with both his teammates and the crowd. Few opponents had any interest in dealing with the behemoth and he would just chuckle at the few who tried.
The breakout season is what both Douglas and the Spitfires needed. He proved that big men can play and the Spitfires found a leader for the next couple of seasons. While it wasn’t easy losing Luchuk, fans are glad Douglas was the piece coming back. He’s found his home.
Clutch Performance – Brock Baier vs. Saginaw Spirit
Being the backup goaltender is never easy. Being the backup to a goaltender like DiPietro is even tougher.
Brock Baier saw action in just nine games coming into the final game of the regular season at home against the Saginaw Spirit. The six-foot-four 225-pound 18-year-old had the talent but, when you don’t play much, you can’t get into a rhythm. His stats – goals-against-average over 5.00 and save percentage below .850 – weren’t much to look at.
However, in the final regular season game on Mar. 18, Baier got the nod. If the Spitfires won, they had the sixth seed and faced the Sarnia Sting in the first round. If they lost, it was the eighth seed and the top-ranked Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. No pressure or anything.
The Spirit put shot-after-shot on him and Baier made save-after-save. He got into his groove, the fans roared and the Spitfires did their part. They got three goals past Spirit goaltender Evan Cormier and it was enough. Baier made 31 saves, allowing just two goals, and the Spitfires get the much-needed two points. You can see the highlights below.
Baier was in a tough spot all season as DiPietro’s backup. You want to play as much as you can to properly develop. When the big moment called, though, Baier answered and passed the test to near perfection. You can’t get more clutch than that.
Best Playoff Moment – Winning Game 4 vs. Sarnia Sting
This was a David v. Goliath matchup from the start. The Spitfires were rebuilding while the Sting were looking to make a serious run towards the 2018 Memorial Cup in Regina.
After a surprising win in Game 1 in Sarnia, the Spitfires lost Games 2 and 3, on the road and at home, respectively. There was a bit of doubt in the air and wonder if the Sting were simply too much for the Spitfires.
Game 4 changed all of that, though.
Goals from Boka and the Sting’s Ryan McGregor tied it up at one after one and, without any goals in the second, it was shaping up to be a wild third period.
Enter Spitfires’ forward Chris Playfair.
While shorthanded, about four minutes into the third period, Playfair stole the puck from the Sting. He broke in on goaltender Justin Fazio, made a move, and slid it home. The Spitfires were up 2-1.
That lead held for just under 10-minutes when Douglas extended the Spitfires lead to 3-1. The Sting couldn’t recover and, despite 47 shots on DiPietro, lost 3-1.
After back-to-back losses, this was the win the Spitfires needed. Not only did it boost their confidence but it showed that they could hang with the contenders.
It may have been the loudest the arena had been since mid-Feb., and rightfully so.
Best Season Moment – Beating Flint on Mickey Renaud Night
On Feb. 18, 2008, the Spitfires tragically lost their captain, Mickey Renaud, after he collapsed at his home in Tecumseh. The cause was an underlying heart condition.
Since then, every season on Feb. 18, the Spitfires play the Mickey Renaud Game and pay tribute to their “Captain forever.”
This season marked the 10th anniversary of Renaud’s death and the Flint Firebirds were in town for the Sunday afternoon affair. The Spitfires showed a tribute video on the big screen before the game and awarded the 2018 recipients of the Mickey Renaud Memorial Scholarships.
While the Firebirds were low in the standings, they had always given the Spitfires a solid game. Today, though, had a different feeling.
The Firebirds had barely settled in when Spitfires’ forward Luke Kutkevicius opened the scoring at 5:01 of the first period. Before they could announce the goal, William Sirman made it 2-0 Spitfires.
Soon after, Douglas and Tyler Angle each scored to make it 4-0 Spitfires, forcing the Firebirds to make a goaltending change. It didn’t help.
Cody Morgan and Thomas Stevenson both got into the act, creating a fan frenzy in the stands. Nobody had expected the offensive outburst and. As the period ended, fans gave the team a standing ovation as the Spitfires were up 6-0 on less than 17 shots.
They could only get one more past Flint, making it a 7-0 final, but the emotion from the game was unquestioned.
In a season that had multiple highs-and-lows, this was a definite bright spot for the Spitfires. There was little doubt that Renaud was somewhere in the arena that day.
I’m a resident of Windsor, ON and a graduate of St Clair College Journalism and New Media program as well as the University of Windsor Communication, Media, and Film program. I’ve been a junior hockey fan (specifically the Windsor Spitfires) for 30-years and have written about/photographed junior hockey since about 2005.