Taking the easy road hasn’t been a part of the Windsor Spitfires’ gameplan all season. As the final two games of the regular season played out, they continued down that tough path. Fortunately, it led them straight to a berth in the 2019 OHL playoffs.
Two tough divisional games showed this team can come together when it’s really needed. Add in a little help from conference foes and the Spitfires can now proudly look at the coveted “X” next to their name in the standings.
It hasn’t been an easy journey but they’re eager to make the rest of it a memorable one.
Spitfires Refuse to Go Down
The task was fairly simple. With the ninth-seeded Erie Otters just two points back, the Spitfires had to get two points over their final two games. Basically, win and you’re in. Their opponents were the last place Flint Firebirds and the seventh-seeded Sarnia Sting. While the Spitfires had success against both this season, each team has also given them fits.
On Thursday night, the Firebirds came to the WFCU Centre with a strange dilemma. A win by the Firebirds and they finish second-last in the OHL, losing out on 14-year-old sensation Shane Wright, who was just granted Exceptional Status for the 2019 OHL Draft. Losing gives the Spitfires a playoff spot, though.
The Firebirds gave the only logical answer – they took it to the Spitfires. They made life tough for Spitfires’ goaltender Colton Incze as he allowed three goals on just 11 shots early in the second period. Finnish rookie Kari Piiroinen came in relief and that changed the tides completely.
Piiroinen made nine saves in the period and Spitfires’ captain Luke Boka got his team to within two midway through the frame. There was life in this team.
Dallas Stars’ prospect Curtis Douglas got in on the action with a pair in the third period to tie it at three. The crowd of just under 5,000 was as loud as it had been all season. Firebirds’ goaltender Emanuel Vella kept his team from completely blowing the lead, making 14 saves in the third period and 40 overall.
Overtime solved nothing so they headed off to the shootout. That’s where former Spitfires’ forward Cody Morgan scored the game-winner as the Firebirds earned the 4-3 win.
That point was big, though, as it put the Spitfires up three points on the Otters, who were home to the Guelph Storm on Friday night.
History Repeats Itself
As the Spitfires headed to Sarnia to take on the Sting, one thing was clear. If either team won, they were in the playoffs, no matter what the Otters did. Any other scenarios made it tricky.
Like Thursday night’s contest, the Spitfires stalled out of the gate. Piiroinen was back in net, but the Sting took advantage of defensive miscues and grabbed a 3-0 lead just 24 minutes into the game. A little puck luck goes a long way, though.
Early in the third period, Spitfires’ rookie Jean-Luc Foudy couldn’t control the puck around Sting goaltender Ethan Langevin. Somehow, it still slid under the netminder and the lead was cut to 3-1. Add another goal by Connor Corcoran six minutes later and suddenly it’s a one-goal game.
Cue Foudy one more time. While shorthanded, he took a pass from Boka at the blueline, skated in on Langevin, who was diving out for the poke check, managed to avoid the goaltender, and slid it into the open net. The highlight reel goal tied it up at three.
Again, overtime solved nothing so the teams went to the shootout. That’s where Sting veteran Franco Sproviero beat Piiroinen in the third round to give the Sting the 4-3 win. It clinched the seventh seed for the Sting, who will wait a couple of days to find out who they play in the first round.
For the Spitfires, the point was all they needed. Combined with the Otters’ 5-2 loss to the Storm and they officially clinch the eighth seed in the conference.
So much work. In the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/oIScvEJPaz
— Windsor Spitfires (@SpitsHockey) March 16, 2019
Now, the waiting game begins.
Spitfires’ First Round Scenarios
Since the Spitfires finish in the eighth spot, they’ll take on the first seed, which will either be the London Knights or Saginaw Spirit.
The Knights hold a one-point lead on the Spirit, but the Spirit have a game-in-hand. They also play each other Saturday night in Saginaw. The Spirit then travel to Sault Ste. Marie on Sunday to face the Greyhounds, which could determine the second seed.
Here are the scenarios:
- Knights win in regulation on Saturday – they win the conference and face the Spitfires in the first round. The last time these clubs battled in the playoffs, the Knights eliminated the Spitfires in the first round in 2017. The Spitfires then went on to win the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup as hosts.
- Knights win in extra time – they win the conference and face the Spitfires. The Spirit could tie in points, but would lose the conference with the tiebreaker (regulation and overtime wins).
- Spirit win in regulation – they win the conference and face the Spitfires. When the two teams met in the 2011 playoffs, the Spitfires eliminated the Spirit in six games in the second round.
- Spirit win in extra time – they would be tied with the Knights and would need a point against the Greyhounds to win the conference. A regulation loss against the Greyhounds would give the Knights the conference due to the tiebreaker.
Needless to say, the Spitfires and their fans will be keeping a close eye on Saturday night’s game.
Neither team will be easy for the Spitfires. The Knights won both post-deadline games against the Spitfires by a combined 14-3 score, while the Spirit won their three games by a combined score of 14-5. However, the Spitfires ended the season with two come-from-behind efforts and a big win on the road against the Greyhounds. If they can build on that, an upset wouldn’t be out of the question.
When was the last time an eighth seed beat the first seed? It was in 2001-02 when the Knights beat the Plymouth Whalers in six games. After the up-and-down season the Spitfires just had, why not make some history? It would only be fitting.
Spitfires’ first-round ticket information will likely be available over the next couple of days so stay tuned.
I’m a resident of Windsor, ON and a graduate of St Clair College Journalism and New Media program as well as the University of Windsor Communication, Media, and Film program. I’ve been a junior hockey fan (specifically the Windsor Spitfires) for 30-years and have written about/photographed junior hockey since about 2005.