Spitfires Look to Future After First-Round Elimination

It was the David v. Goliath match that David didn’t have much of a chance with. The rebuilding eighth-seeded Windsor Spitfires are looking at an important summer after being eliminated by the top-seeded London Knights in the first round of the OHL Western Conference Playoffs.

The veteran-laden Knights came into Game 4 with a 3-0 series lead and were looking to avoid heading back home for Game 5 on Friday.

While the Spitfires gave it their all, it simply wasn’t enough.

Boqvist Continues Hot Streak

In Game 3, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Adam Boqvist put on a four-goal clinic as the Knights won 6-3. Those were against Spitfires goaltender Colton Inze, though.

For Game 4, the Spitfires went with rookie Kari Piiroinen, who made 21 saves in a Game 1 loss. He met Boqvist rather quickly. The defenceman put the Knights up 1-0 just 1:37 into the game with a power-play marker.

The Spitfires stuck to their game plan. While it wasn’t as aggressive as parts of Game 3, they still managed to tie it up late in the period thanks to Tyler Angle’s third of the series. The Knights weren’t done, though, as William Lochead gave them the 2-1 lead after 20 with his first of the series.

Adam Boqvist Blackhawks
Adam Boqvist was a thorn in the Windsor Spitfires’ side all series. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Neither team could find the net through most of the second period. The Knights cranked up the shots, but Piiroinen was up to the task.

Unfortunately, being inexperienced means Piiroinen will make mistakes. Knights sniper Kevin Hancock intercepted a failed clearing attempt and he promptly put it into the open cage. That gave the Knights a 3-1 lead.

Spitfires veteran Connor Corcoran kept his team close, though, putting home a shot just two minutes later. That was as close as they could get, however. Boqvist got his sixth of the series before the second period ended to make it 4-2 after 40 minutes.

Kari Piiroinen Windsor Spitfires
Goaltender Kari Piiroinen will be key in the future for the Windsor Spitfires. (Dave Jewell/THW)

As the third period drew on, it was clear the Spitfires were out of answers. They managed just four shots on goaltender Jordan Kooy as the clock slowly ticked down. The tank was empty.

Spitfires head coach Trevor Letowski pulled Piiroinen with two minutes remaining but the Knights found the empty cage, giving them a 5-2 win. The Knights sweep the Spitfires 4-0 and move onto the Western Conference semifinals.

Spitfires’ Focus Shifts to Future

Being swept is never easy. You put tremendous amounts of work into the 68-game schedule, only to lose quickly in the playoffs. For the Spitfires, though, it’s needed experience and this is just the beginning.

For the last season-and-a-half, general manager Warren Rychel has built a team that’s focused on the future. This means the majority of the roster is eligible to return next season.

Rychel has put together a solid core that includes Piiroinen, 18-year-olds Daniel D’Amico and Grayson Ladd, 17-year-old Will Cuylle and 16-year-old Jean-Luc Foudy along with a host of others. They will likely be part of the team when it’s ready to contend in a couple of seasons.

Windsor Spitfires Jean-Luc Foudy
Jean-Luc Foudy (93) finished off an impressive rookie season. (Dave Jewell/THW)

The only two players who definitely graduate are forward Chase Campbell and defenceman Sean Allen.

Campbell was brought in as a free agent at the deadline after playing with the Kitchener Rangers, providing needed depth and leadership as a defensive forward. Allen, a tough-as-nails defenceman, came in from the Oshawa Generals over the summer and quickly became both a fan favourite and a locker room leader.

For now, most player decisions are on the backburner as Rychel focuses on the OHL Draft coming up on April 6. The Spitfires have the sixth-overall pick in the first round and there is plenty to take into consideration for both that pick and the rest of the draft.

Spitfires Warren Rychel
Windsor Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel has some decisions to make. (Dave Jewell/THW)

This wasn’t the ending the Spitfires wanted, but the experience from facing the powerhouse Knights will only benefit the young players in the future.

While the Knights get ready to take on their next opponent on the Highway to Halifax, home to the 2019 Mastercard Memorial Cup, the Spitfires focus on the future. It’s a bright one and Spitfires fans should be very excited about what it could bring.