It’s the OHL holiday break, and the rebuilding Windsor Spitfires continue to surprise, as they have held their ground in the Western Conference.
During the first quarter, the Spitfires surprised fans and teams with their play. Despite an apparent rebuild, the team managed to stay mid-pack in the conference. At some point, reality had to strike, right? Not necessarily.
At the break, the Spitfires sit fourth in the conference at 18-11-2-1, good for 39 points. They’re tied for fourth-fewest goals against (102), which has helped their cause. It hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine for the club, but this group has come together well.
In October, we took a look at the team grades during the first quarter. Let’s continue that with the team grades for the first half.
Secondary Offence is Primary Focus
Over the first two months, the duo of Aaron Luchuk and Logan Brown had been the main focus for the team. They were the power duo and their chemistry was undeniable. As they went, the team went. The tides are swinging a bit, though.
While Brown has been his usual offensive juggernaut (24 points in 15 games), and Luchuk was golden prior to his trade to Barrie, others have stepped up to make a huge impact.
After 17 points in 68 games in 2016-17, second-year forward Cole Purboo has broken out for 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in just 32 games. This includes a current nine-game point streak (17 points). Everything about Purboo’s game has improved since last season and his ice time has been rewarded as a result.
He hasn’t been the only one, either. Jake Smith has eight points in his last six games, while Mathew MacDougall has 10 points in his last eight games. MacDougall’s production is big as he’s only 17 years old and a key part of the upcoming rebuild.
Overall, the secondary scoring has found its stride and the Spitfires have scored at least three goals in nine straight games. Instead of having Luchuk and Brown carry the offence, this has become a tight-knit group who carries each other. The light at the end of the tunnel has been a whole lot brighter.
Quick Blueline Learners
Roster turnover doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Despite having four players on defence who are 17 years old or younger, this group is holding its own and frustrating teams. While they haven’t played like seasoned veterans every game, they’re showing that sometimes youth is all in your head.
Of the six regular defencemen, just two are a minus on the plus-minus scale. In fact, two of them (rookies Lev Starikov and Nathan Staios) are in the top-four on the team at plus-seven and plus-four, respectively.
There are learning curves, such as allowing five goals or more twice in the last month. However, when you maintain a top-five position in goals against in the league, you’re doing something right.
They’ve even had offence from the proper sources, too. Veterans Sean Day (21 points in 27 games) and Austin McEneny (18 points in 30 games) have stepped up with youngsters like Starikov, Staios and Connor Corcoran all showing signs of progression.
Rychel has created a defence that will learn from key veterans and grow together. It’s not an easy task, but one he’s happy to take on. While the defence has shown growing pains, they’re taking it step-by-step and proving they have the right stuff.
DiPietro Bends, Won’t Break
The second quarter of the season has shown something drastic – goaltender Michael DiPietro may only be 95 percent robot.
DiPietro has done it all for the Spitfires. When they needed a big save, big period or even a big game, he’s been the guy to deliver. Team Canada thought so, too, when they invited him to their 2018 World Juniors camp in early December. Unfortunately, in mid-November, there was a stretch where he gave up four or more goals in five straight games. It was just a little uncharacteristic.
The team gave DiPietro a bit of time off to reboot and it seems to have paid off. Over his last four games, he has allowed just 10 goals on 145 shots. Looks like the robot is back!
What has helped the Spitfires’ in net, as well, are the backups. Lucas Patton played back-to-back games last weekend, allowing just four goals on 68 shots. It hasn’t been as good for Brock Baier, but he has faced some high-powered offences such as the Sarnia Sting and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, both on the road.
While the goaltending has been a bit more up-and-down than most would like, it’s still a situation other teams would love to have.
Special Teams Finding a Way
It’s difficult to be successful if your special teams aren’t performing. Fortunately, for the Spitfires, it’s all systems go.
For the last two seasons, the team has been near the top of the league in penalty kill and this half is no different. At the break, they sit in fifth place between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at 82.1 percent.
The power play has been even better. Converting at a 26.5 percent clip, that’s good enough for second in the league behind the potent Owen Sound Attack offence. Having 14 players (including Luchuk) contributing points brings a sense of security. No matter who is on the ice, pressure is created.
The Spitfires also have the fewest power play chances of anyone in the league (98 through 32 games) and are well behind second-last Kingston (116 through 33 games). They don’t get many opportunities but they sure have made them count.
Coaches Create Winning Formula
Just because you’re a young team doesn’t mean you have to play like one.
After losing head coach Rocky Thompson in the offseason, the Spitfires knew Trevor Letowski was their guy. He knew the systems and the players, and, when Team Canada calls, you’re on the right track.
Throughout the first half, Letowski has had his team forcing the play at all times. Earlier in the season, they had an aggressive forecheck, but weren’t using the body much. Since mid-November, that’s changed leaps-and-bounds.
The team is aggressive up front, patient in their own zone and has played a style that fans seem to be taking a liking to. There’s a real sense of camaraderie on the ice; the team plays for each other and it shows in their work.
Taking a team with this much turnover and making it your own hasn’t been an easy task for Letowski and his staff. They’ve done well, though, and get past the hiccups almost every time.
The real test, though, might be post-deadline. We’ll wait-and-see on that. For now, you have to appreciate the job this staff has done.
Building the Bond
The start of this season wasn’t what anyone had expected. You don’t have that much turnover and predict the Spitfires to be holding their own with the rest of the elites in the league. For the most part, though, they’ve done just that.
Some nights this team gels just right and you see a dominating performance. On the flip side, there have been hiccups and miscues along the way. Even with issues, they’ve never come unglued.
The veterans took control in the first quarter, but the young guns have taken over since. It doesn’t get any easier as the Luchuk deal is likely the first big deal out of several to come. If the first half was any indication, though, they’re going to be alright.
Not every night is easy. Not every night is difficult. The first half exceeded expectations, though, and it could prove vital come March.
Overall team grade: B+