Having a lighter-than-normal schedule has been the story for the Windsor Spitfires all season. Even following back-to-back three-game weekends, they’ve played the fewest games (49) in the OHL this season. That’s about to change, though, and they’ll need all hands on deck.
Despite the lighter schedule, the team has taken advantage of its opportunities. They’re 29-15-5-0, putting them in the fifth seed in the Western Conference with 61 points. Losing four of the last five has created some concern — rightfully so — but they’re going to enter a crazy stretch that could give them some hope while testing them to the core.
Let’s break down last weekend and discuss the craziness that’s about to unfold.
Bulldogs Show Bite
With just over a month left in the regular season, you have to take advantage of every opportunity. A constant theme for the Spitfires has been playing down to their opponents. They get the points but it’s often using the most difficult path they can find. Sometimes beggars can’t be choosers, but why make life more difficult?
Thursday night, the Spitfires welcomed the Hamilton Bulldogs to town, a team battling to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Earlier this season, the Bulldogs beat the Spitfires 2-1 in Hamilton and history looked to repeat itself.
An early power play goal gave the visitors a 1-0 lead before Spitfires’ rookie Pasquale Zito tied it to end the first period. As the game wore on, though, the Bulldogs’ timely offence and stingy defence frustrated the home side.
The Spitfires were unable to beat goaltender Zachary Roy, who made the big saves when needed. Late in the game, the visitors scored a pair of power play goals, including one with 30 seconds remaining, to snag the 3-1 win.
Frustration was evident when the buzzer sounded. While the Bulldogs blocked numerous shots, the Spitfires simply can’t afford to let opportunities like this skip past them.
They had no time to dwell, though, as the Sarnia Sting were up for a home-and-home on Friday and Saturday.
Spitfires Stung During Home-and-Home
Friday in Sarnia, the Spitfires did everything possible to bounce back from just 24 shots the previous night. Sting goaltender Ben Gaudreau felt the wrath, facing 65 shots.
At times, it looked like the visitors would get the two points, building up a 3-2 lead early in the third period. That should have been enough to seal it, but looks can be deceiving.
While Xavier Medina got the start in goal for the Spitfires, he went down in the third period with a leg injury, forcing Kari Piiroinen into the net for the final stretch. The Sting took full advantage of the cold goaltender with two goals in 30 seconds, grabbing the 4-3 lead. You can’t write off the visitors, though.
Cole Purboo tied it for the Spitfires with three minutes to go, forcing overtime. That’s where veteran Curtis Douglas gave the visitors the 5-4 win. Gaudreau made 60 saves in the loss.
Saturday night saw the teams finish up the home-and-home at the WFCU Centre. While the hometown Spitfires continued to fire on the Sting net, it was the visitors that got the last laugh.
The Sting grabbed the early 2-0 lead, which became a 5-2 advantage early in the third period. What’s a Spitfires’ third period without some dramatics, though? They’ve become known for it.
A pair of goals from Wyatt Johnston and Egor Afanasyev got the Spitfires to within a goal with 10 minutes remaining. That’s as close as they’d come, though. Jacob Perreault completed the hat trick and Sean Josling put his 31st of the season into an empty net, giving the visitors a convincing 7-4 win.
Friday’s win was a nice boost but letting Saturday’s game get away from them is tough. Those points are too valuable.
Boka Reaches 300 Games
While there was plenty to be frustrated about last weekend, it wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. Friday night, Spitfires’ captain Luke Boka reached an impressive team milestone.
With the puck drop, Boka became just the fourth player in team history to reach the 300-game mark. All have been with the Spitfires.
The Plymouth, Michigan native was drafted by the Spitfires in the fifth round of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection. He came to the club out of Victory Honda U16, known as a kid who put his body on the line every night while chipping in for a few points.
From the moment the Spitfires drafted him, management was excited about his potential. Boka’s more than lived up to his billing, being named team captain prior to the 2018-19 season. He has also won multiple OHL Coaches Poll Awards — third-best Western Conference Defensive Forward in 2017-18 and Western Conference Best Shotblocker in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Boka joins former Spitfires Craig Mahon, John-Scott Dickson, and Craig Kennedy in the 300-game club.
Mahon, a former captain who hails from 20 minutes south of Windsor in South Woodslee, was the first to the mark, playing 300 games from 1997-02. Kennedy, another former captain, reached it in 2004 and is second all-time with 303 games. Dickson, a former ECHL head coach, was the last in 2005. He’s the all-time team leader with 306 games. The three played together during the 2001-02 season.
While Boka has been a solid 30- to 40-point producer in his career, he’s always been more about the team-first approach. His work on the penalty kill and in the room/community has been invaluable to the team.
Assuming he plays in every game now, Boka will break Dickson’s record on Sunday, Feb. 23 on the road against the Oshawa Generals.
Busy Stretch Approaches
While the record is a big deal, the Spitfires are also focused on a string of games over the next two weeks that could affect their playoff lives.
It begins with a stretch of four games in six days, starting Thursday night when they head to Peterborough to take on the Petes. It marks the first game of their annual Eastern Road Trip; they travel to Kingston on Friday night to face the Frontenacs and then wrap it up on Sunday in Ottawa against the 67’s.
Each of the three teams has its own targets to worry about. The Petes are fending off the Oshawa Generals for third in the conference, while the 67’s are trying to get that regular-season title. The Frontenacs are in a toe-to-toe battle with the Mississauga Steelheads for the final playoff spot. Missing a second-straight playoff isn’t an option.
This trip will test the team. If they want to keep home ice, or even challenge for the division crown, here’s their chance. Following the trip, the Spitfires return home for a rare Tuesday night game. It’s not just any weekday game, though.
On Feb. 18, 2008, former Spitfires’ captain Mickey Renaud passed away suddenly at his home in Tecumseh, ON. It was later determined that he had an undiagnosed heart condition. The Calgary Flames prospect was just 19. The tragedy shook the hockey community to its core, both locally and nationally. Since then, each season the team holds the annual Mickey Renaud Game, paying tribute to their “Captain Forever.” It’s always an emotional night. This season’s opponent will be the Sting.
There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of the upcoming schedule; despite their talent, the Spitfires have shown inconsistencies. However, with so much on the line and emotions running high, it’s time to prove the critics wrong.