The long-awaited busy schedule for the Windsor Spitfires is finally here. With one month to go in the regular season and just a few points separating five teams in the OHL’s Western Conference, it’s a pretty big deal. From a big Eastern trip to honouring a former captain — another road trip to some very important people — life’s not slowing down in the Rose City.
Back in September, the Spitfires were coming off an eighth-place finish in the Western Conference. Most predictions for 2019-20 had them anywhere from a realistic fourth seed to an unlikely ninth. Instead, they decided to take on all critics, climbing to the top of the conference by Christmas. A little bump in the road in January had them falling into the fifth seed, but there’s still time to climb back up.
Could a weekend away from home plus a special event on Tuesday night help?
Petes No Problem
Getting away from everything can really help a team. Last Thursday, the team hit the highway for their annual Eastern swing — Peterborough Petes, Kingston Frontenacs (Friday night), and the Ottawa 67’s (Sunday afternoon).
The Petes are a tough team at home, losing just five games in regulation coming into the weekend. This wasn’t going to be an easy contest for either club.
While the Spitfires were just as good on the road, the teams spent most of the first period playing the cautious game. The last time they met, it was a 9-6 final and there’s no doubt that was on everyone’s mind.
As the period wound down, though, chaos broke out.
With two minutes left, a fight broke out in the stands behind the home bench, causing a huge distraction on the ice. The Petes saw it and tried to stay focused on the game. It didn’t work. Spitfires’ captain Luke Boka took advantage, giving his club the 1-0 lead. Just 30-seconds later, Kyle McDonald made it 2-0 and they weren’t done.
A five-minute, head-checking major to Petes’ star Akil Thomas with 10 seconds left in the first period gave the Spitfires a lengthy power play. Cole Purboo made it 3-0 just before the buzzer sounded.
In the second, the Spitfires kept going. They scored two more with the man-advantage, plus added another after, to make it 6-0 before the halfway point.
While Petes’ veteran Zach Gallant scored a couple late in the game, there was no comeback on this night. The Spitfires got a late goal from Curtis Douglas for the 7-3 win.
Spitfires Find Wright Stuff
The club took the two points and headed over to Kingston for a Friday night showdown with Shane Wright and the Frontenacs. The 16-year-old phenom came into the contest with 32 goals in 47 games. He didn’t disappoint.
Wright grabbed an early assist on a Zayde Wisdom goal to give the Frontenacs a 1-0 lead. However, the Spitfires’ momentum from Thursday was alive and kicking. They scored five of the next seven goals, with five different goal scorers, to take the 5-3 lead midway through the second period.
Frontenacs’ goaltender Christian Propp did everything he could to keep his team in the game, making some big saves. That gave them a boost.
The Frontenacs made a late push to make it 5-5, giving the home crowd some hope. However, the Spitfires wouldn’t be denied. Tyler Angle scored with four minutes left to get his club the 6-5 win. Wright finished with a goal and an assist.
Both clubs needed this game. The Spitfires got two key points, while the Frontenacs proved they could come back from a deficit.
Win with a Capital W
Fatigue started to set in on Sunday afternoon as the team finished off their trip against the top-ranked 67’s in Ottawa. No matter how you looked at it, this was going to be a tough match. The 67’s had lost just eight games all season and were built for a strong playoff run.
Fortunately for the Spitfires, goaltender Kari Piiroinen was on his game. While the club got him a pair of timely goals, he turned aside 18 shots through 40 minutes, taking a 2-0 lead into the third.
The 67’s are elite for a reason, though. They peppered Piiroinen in the third period, firing 13 shots. The hard work paid off as they tied it 2-2 with seconds left on the clock.
With overtime solving nothing, it was off to a shootout. That’s where Spitfires’ veteran Will Cuylle pinged the puck off the post and into the net, giving them the 3-2 win and the weekend sweep.
Few had expected a win against the 67’s, let alone a sweep of the Eastern swing. It built up their confidence, though, and that would be needed with four games in the next seven days.
Spitfires Honour Renaud on 12th Anniversary
The date Feb. 18, 2008, will live on forever with the Spitfires and the City of Windsor.
On that Family Day morning, the team was preparing for a fan skate at the Windsor Arena. Spitfires’ Captain Mickey Renaud was at his home in Tecumseh with some teammates. Suddenly, while getting ready to leave, he collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital.
Despite every effort, Renaud, 19, couldn’t be saved and passed away.
The news hit the city, the region, and the hockey community, leaving everyone in a state of shock. An autopsy determined that Renaud died from a Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscles thicken and restrict blood flow.
In 2009, the Spitfires decided to play on Feb. 18 to honour their “Captain Forever” and it has become a tradition ever since. This season, the Sarnia Sting were in town.
Before the game, the organization played a tribute video to Renaud with some of his game highlights. Following that, Mickey’s parents, Mark and Jane, came onto the ice along with the team’s billets to drop the ceremonial puck. They were all joined by the Spitfires’ roster.
Once the game started, it was clear the Spitfires were feeling the effects of the weekend. Despite having the momentum, energy was tough to find. The Spitfires grabbed an early 1-0 lead, but then the Sting took over. They scored the next four, taking a 5-2 lead after 40 minutes.
While the Spitfires tried to come back, scoring a pair late, Sting goaltender Ben Gaudreau got help from his defence and faced few quality chances. The Sting found the open net with seconds remaining to take the 6-4 win. It was not the response the Spitfires wanted, nor the one they needed.
First Responders Night
It’s becoming tougher and tougher to figure out this club. The Spitfires sweep a weekend on the road, including beating Canada’s top team, then lose at home to a rebuilding team who lost 12-7 the day before.
Did fatigue play a big factor? Possibly. However, we’ve seen this before. The Spitfires have a tendency to play down to their competition. Regardless of the reason, they only have a short window to figure it out. Nobody’s going to wait for them.
Thursday night, the London Knights come into town. They’ve won the last two against the Spitfires and are at the top of the conference. Mercy will be in short supply.
It’s also First Responders Night as the organization teams up with Boots to the Ground, a peer support system that helps First Responders dealing with PTSD. Fans can purchase a ticket package that includes a ticket and a “challenge coin.” Part of the ticket proceeds goes to Boots to the Ground.
The Spitfires then hit the road for a game with the Barrie Colts on Saturday night and the Oshawa Generals on Sunday night.
Nothing about this weekend is going to be simple for the Spitfire as the team is searching for answers and a bit of rest. They sit three points out of fourth-seed in the conference and the leaders of the conference have found their best games. Welcome to hockey in late February.
If the Spitfires want to get back into the home-ice discussion, the rest must take a back seat. You find an answer or risk having the season end in late March. With nine-straight seasons of not making the second round, failure can’t be an option.
Game time on Thursday is 7:05 p.m.