The Windsor Spitfires have punched their ticket to the post-season dance. They’ve earned, at the minimum, the eighth seed in the OHL’s Western Conference. Is that good enough by itself, though?
On Saturday night, the Spitfires got an all-star performance from goaltender Michael DiPietro in a 4-0 win over the Saginaw Spirit in Saginaw. That win, combined with an Erie Otters (ninth-seed) loss on Sunday afternoon in Mississauga, gave the Spitfires that coveted “X” next to their name in the Western Conference standings.
The Spitfires could have controlled their own fate on Sunday, as they battled the top-ranked Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Soo, but they fell 5-2.
Appropriately, DiPietro’s shutout against Saginaw was his seventh of the season (franchise record) and the 15th of his career, putting him one behind the modern-day OHL record of 16 set by Thomas McCollum (2006-09).
Is Eight Really That Great?
The top three seeds in the conference are spoken for – the Hounds, the Kitchener Rangers and the Sarnia Sting. Those are all but locked up. Even the fourth-and-fifth seeds are fairly certain with the London Knights and Owen Sound Attack.
It’s the sixth through eighth seeds that are a complete toss-up.
After the weekend games, the Spitfires now sit in the eighth spot in the conference with 63-points, one point back of the Spirit who have 64-points, and just two back of the Guelph Storm who have 65-points. The three teams each have six games remaining on their schedule. The Spitfires face off against the Hounds at home this Thursday night and end the season at home on Sunday, Mar. 18 against the Spirit.
If the Spitfires get hot, or other teams struggle, they could find themselves in the sixth seed. Two points is a tiny gap in the OHL; one good weekend, or even game, and everything changes.
Realistically, though, the goal should be the seventh seed.
If the Spitfires fall into the eighth seed, they’ve got a date with the Greyhounds in the first round. While all the pressure would be on the Hounds, do you really want to face off against a team that could easily sweep a series or two?
The Hounds are the real deal; when you lose six games in regulation, all season, you’re doing something right. They’re built to win now. You want to give your kids the best chance to succeed. In this case, it’s facing anyone but the Greyhounds.
Not that the seventh seed is any better, as the Kitchener Rangers will be ready and waiting, but it’s a better option for Rychel’s club. The Spitfires split the season series with the Rangers as each won twice. Here’s are some highlights from a Spitfires’ overtime win against Kitchener in Nov:
The Rangers also loaded up and feature a few Spitfires from last season on their roster – goaltender Mario Culina, forward Logan Brown and defencemen Austin McEneny and Logan Stanley. Having the two teams battle in the opening round would almost be appropriate.
What about that sixth seed? That’s where you face the Sting and the Spitfires haven’t had any real success against them this season (one win in six games). Like the Hounds and Rangers, the Sting are built to win now. They went out at the deadline and acquired talents like defenceman Cam Dineen (North Bay Battalion) and Jonathan Ang (Peterborough Petes). They’ve had the Spitfires’ number all year and it’s just not a good recipe for the young club.
Class is in Session
How did we get here?
Just three months ago, the Spitfires were sitting comfortably near the top of the conference standings. They were banking the points, trying to decide whether to defend their throne or to look at the future.
Then, the trade deadline hit. General manager Warren Rychel had no choice but to rebuild the roster. Out went the veterans and in came the young and eager youngsters, along with plenty of much-needed picks.
While it would have been entertaining watching the Spitfires try to keep up with the elites of the conference, it wasn’t realistic
The team got much younger with an average age of under 18-years-old. Let’s not be mistaken, though. This team has talent.
They still have DiPietro, who is likely to be in any discussion about OHL MVP. They’ve also got 17-year-old Curtis Douglas who, at six-foot-eight, has everyone looking up to him, along with rookie defenceman Nathan Staios. While just five-foot-nine and 165-pounds, Staios has some rich bloodlines (father is former NHLer Steve Staios) and has steadily improved his game since entering the OHL.
With 11 players being 17-years-old or younger, there’s a clear learning curve. Every game is a teaching moment, though.
Think of the rink as a big classroom. There are good periods and bad periods. It’s a steady progression upwards, though. You can see it in their play. After a disappointing 4-3 loss to the Sudbury Wolves at home on Thursday, the effort against the Spirit on Saturday was one of their best of the season. A good student doesn’t always succeed the first time, but they learn and evolve.
Benefit From Rare Situation
It has been 12-years since Rychel bought the Spitfires with Bob Boughner and Peter Dobrich. Since then, fans have been treated to either great success or frustrating failure. There has been very little in the middle. Only twice have they finished in fifth-place and just once between sixth-and-eighth place (eighth – 2011-12).
Being in this rare spot is likely to help the team over the long-term, though. With the conference being so close, every game truly means something in the standings. Every period becomes a battle.
The Spitfires are fortunate to have coaches and management in place that have been through the OHL trenches. Rychel played in the OHL from 1984-97. Head coach Trevor Letwoski was a Sarnia Sting from 1994-97. Assistant coach Mike Weber was a Spitfire from 2004-07.
Having a competitive first round will benefit the Spitfires in the long-term. They might not win, but these kids will learn what it takes to take that next step. That’s crucial for next season and beyond. Add in elite players from the 2018 OHL and CHL drafts and the future is bright.
As we march towards the post-season, every game matters and every period matters. The new kids on McHugh Street are eager to learn. This is the beauty of the OHL and it will be must-see hockey as we head into the post-season dance. Spitfires’ playoff tickets will be available here starting Mar. 13. Tickets for the rest of the regular season can be found here.