A Tale of Two Teams: Spitfires’ Eastern Road Trip

Part of rebuilding a hockey club involves finding consistency on the ice and the Windsor Spitfires are learning that the hard way. The Spitfires headed off on their annual eastern road trip this weekend and a wide range of outcomes turned out to be a perfect snapshot of the season so far.

Every season, the Spitfires make their way to Eastern Ontario to face the Ottawa 67s, Peterborough Petes and Kingston Frontenacs over the course of a weekend. It’s the Spitfires’ only visit to those towns during the year. Last season, the Spitfires swept the trip, earning a much-needed six points. It wasn’t the case this weekend, though.

Can’t Capitalize in Ottawa

Friday night, the Spitfires arrived in Ottawa for a date with the 67s, who had won two straight and were off to a 5-3 start on the season. This was a real test for the Spits as the 67s are looking to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this season.

While a quick start would have been ideal for either club, they played a more defensive style early, going scoreless after one. Spitfires’ goaltender Michael DiPietro and 67s goaltender Cedrick Andree went save-for-save until midway through the second period.

Michael DiPietro draft profile
Windsor Spitfires’ goaltender Michael DiPietro. Dave Jewell/THW

Two quick goals by the 67s in the second gave them a 2-0 lead. The home team pressed on the gas pedal and jumped ahead in shots. It wasn’t all for not, though, as Spitfires’ rookie Kyle McDonald, who hails from Ottawa, scored his first OHL goal to make it a 2-1 game.

The 67s never let up, though, and Andree shut the door on the Spitfires. Two more 67s goals in the third period gave them a 4-1 win.

What didn’t help matters was the Spitfires being held without a power play goal in four chances. It’s been a constant struggle for the club as they sit near the bottom of the OHL rankings with the man-advantage at just four-for-33 this season (12-percent).

Maybe a loss was the kickstart and motivation the Spitfires needed going into the rest of the weekend.

For Pete’s Sake

After just 23 shots the night before, the Spitfires made it their mission to fire the puck more on Saturday night in Peterborough against the OHL-leading Petes.

It worked – they put 36 shots on Petes’ goaltender Hunter Jones, including 15 in the second period alone. However, despite the plentiful rubber, they managed just two goals, both from forward Cole Purboo. At the other end, the Petes fired 27 on Spitfires’ goaltender Kari Piiroinen and got three of their own, plus an empty net goal late in the game. The Petes came away with the 4-2 win.

It was a different look for the Spitfires just 24-hours after their loss to the 67s. They gave the Petes all they could handle but inexperience took over. Getting 36 shots was key, though, as it gave them some confidence heading into their final match of the weekend. They even managed a power play goal in four chances, which was something to build on.

When you’re hot, you’re hot, though, and the Petes showed why they’re at the top of the league standings. The Spitfires showed they could play with them, however, and need to take the positives from the game.

Sunday Showdown in Kingston

After two losses, this was the game the Spitfires knew they had to have. Salvaging two points from their trip was a must as the Frontenacs are in a rebuild mode sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Neither team acted like it was the end of the weekend, though. Trying to get past the frustration of the earlier games, the Spitfires scored three first-period goals, including one on the power play. They took a 3-1 lead into the dressing room, despite being outshot 13-12. The period was the classic DiPietro period, stopping almost everything he faced.

The Frontenacs fired 13 shots at DiPietro in the first period and another 16 in the second, which was much like the first. They only managed one goal in the second on a powerplay marker by Brett Naumann. The pretty tic-tac-toe backdoor pass cut the Spits’ lead to 4-2.  However, right after that, Luke Kutkevicius sealed the win with a short-handed goal on a two-on-one with Purboo. It gave the Spitfires a 5-2 lead, which ended up being the final score.

Cole Purboo Spitfires
Cole Purboo (26) during Spitfires’ training camp in August. (Dave Jewell/THW)

While the Frontenacs are rebuilding, they still peppered DiPietro with 40 shots. He made acrobatic saves and showed why he was the OHL Goaltender of the Year in 2017-18. In the other end, the Spitfires fired 33 on goaltender Brad Bonello (starter) and Ryan Dugas (rookie backup). It just wasn’t the day to be a Frontenacs’ goaltender, though.

Head coach Trevor Letowski and his boys hopped onto their bus and settled in for the long ride back down the 401 with two points in their pockets. While it wasn’t the trip the team had hoped for, they finished on a high note and that’s a building block for the upcoming week.

Two Spitfires Teams on Trip

There were some positives to take from the weekend. DiPietro’s win against the Frontenacs puts him at 77 wins, just one win behind Andrew Engelage (78) for the all-time Spitfires’ record for career wins by a goaltender.

Offensively, Purboo had a four-point weekend while rookie forwards Will Cuylle and Jean-Luc Foudy, plus veteran Connor Corcoran, all had two points. It showed the teams potential offensive depth. However, three goals in the opening two games shows there is a long way to go.

Consistency has eluded the Spitfires in their opening nine games as they have yet to string two consecutive wins together. It doesn’t help when they have 26 goals in nine games and six of those games had two-or-fewer goals scored.

This trip was a near ideal snapshot of the season; two low-scoring games and then finding their offence out of nowhere. It’s part of the process, though, and will continue as the team matures and finds their stride.

What could be the cause? It’s tough to ignore the lineup rotations. Letowski has to routinely sit players as they have 14 forwards and seven defencemen, all of whom could play every day. Just over the last two weeks, at least eight different players have sat, including rookies and veterans. Some have sat multiple times. It’s an unfortunate part of the game when you have extra players and, while it might be necessary, it’s not always beneficial. It brings uncertainty to the lineup, which doesn’t help the chemistry at all.

There’s also significant lack of power play offence with just a 12-percent efficiency (four-for-33). The Spitfires scored just two extra-man goals in the three games. It’s a massive change from the 18.1-percent they converted at in 2017-18.

Trevor Letowski Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ head coach Trevor Letowski (L).  (Terry Wilson / CHL Images.)

The team chemistry and roster were a work-in-progress and that was well-known coming into the season. Now that they’re nearly a month into play, though, perhaps it’s time to make some decisions. Finalize the lineup, create steady lines and get into a groove.

Two different Spitfires’ team showed up on this trip. There’s no reason the team that showed in the latter half can’t be the full-time team. The one that put up 36 shots against the Petes and five goals against the Fronts. It’s clear they have the ability. Now they just need to figure out the consistency part.

They’ve got a few days off to sort things out. That’s when the Barrie Colts come into Windsor on Thursday night. Game time is 7:05 pm.