There are two guarantees during any OHL schedule – a long homestand and a period of time where you’re living out of a suitcase. The latter is where the Windsor Spitfires find themselves and, despite being an inexperienced team, they’re making the most of it.
Last weekend, the Spitfires packed their bags and headed up north for three games in the middle of snow country. It marked the third weekend in January where the team played at least two games on the road. When you’ve got a stretch like that, it’s up to the coaches to keep the team cohesive and focused.
With a homestand on the horizon, could the Spitfires dig deep and manage some points in enemy territory?
History and Frustration in the Bay
On Thursday night, the Spitfires pulled up to the old confines of the North Bay Memorial Gardens to take on the North Bay Battalion. It was also historic as brothers Cole (Spitfires) and Christian (Battalion) Purboo faced off for the first time in the league. Cole, 19, was one of the Spitfires’ leading scorers with 23 goals in 49 games. Meanwhile, Christian, who just turned 19, was the backup goaltender for the Battalion.
On this night, Cole didn’t score on his brother but his teammates did. The Spitfires scored four, all in the first 40 minutes, and held on for the 4-2 win. Spitfires goaltender Colton Incze made 38 saves in the win. Luke Burghardt scored twice for the Battalion while four different Spitfires had a goal in the winning effort.
The brother versus brother matchup was fun for both teams, however, the Spitfires left North Bay on a tough note.
Forward Kyle McDonald and defenceman Grayson Ladd both left the game due to injury. McDonald fell into the end boards, hurting his shoulder, while Ladd was hit from behind, hurting his hand. Both are expected out until near the end of the regular season; surgery may also play a factor in that.
After the game, Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel said the focus now shifts to getting the players healthy. “These injuries definitely hurt us going forward as we push for playoff positioning,” he said in a press release. “Both (of) these kids are a big part of our future plans. Taking the right steps to get them healed up is the focus right now.”
The Battle of Finland
The Spitfires took a shortened bench into Sudbury on Friday night to play the Wolves. The one good note was the return of veteran defenceman Sean Allen who was suspended for six games following an incident against the Erie Otters at home two weeks prior.
Allen and the Spitfires were in tough, however, as this became a battle of Finnish goaltenders. The Wolves dressed 2019 World Junior Gold Medalist Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who came in with just seven losses all season. The Spitfires countered with fellow Finn Kari Piiroinen who was looking to rebound after three-straight games of allowing five-or-more goals.
Piiroinen didn’t look out of place, though. He met Luukkonen save-for-save, finishing with 42 stops. The Wolves fired 32 shots in the opening 40 minutes but only held a 1-0 lead. It was the third period that did the Spitfires in as a power-play goal from rookie phenom Quinton Byfield gave the Wolves a 3-1 lead. They added an empty-net goal to seal the 4-1 win. Luukkonen made 22 saves in the win.
Not getting any points against the Wolves wasn’t an easy pill to swallow but there’s a bright light here. Piiroinen stood on his head and showed Spitfire fans that he should be just fine. It hasn’t been an easy road since the Spitfires traded goaltender Michael DiPietro to the Ottawa 67’s in December, but a game like this was huge for the young Finn.
A Sound Saturday Effort
Winning on the road against the Owen Sound Attack is tough for any team. The small, cramped confines of the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Center are notorious for difficult road games. When the Spitfires beat the Attack 6-1 earlier this season, it felt like a rarity. Saturday night, the Spitfires gave it another try but knew they’d be in tough.
Despite being in their third game in three nights, head coach Trevor Letowski didn’t let his team quit. Incze was put back in the net for the Spitfires and kept his team in it for the entire 60 minutes. The Spitfires fired 29 shots on goaltender Mack Guzda and managed to get a 3-2 lead late in the third period. However, sometimes fatigue just catches up to you.
Barrett Kirwin scored a power-play goal with under two minutes left to tie it up for the Attack. Then, with just 18 seconds left in overtime, Attack sniper Maksim Sushko sent the crowd home happy, beating Incze for the 4-3 Attack win.
— Owen Sound Attack (@AttackOHL) February 3, 2019
It was a long ride home for the Spitfires as the late penalty and going one-for-seven on the power play didn’t help anything. They now sit 17th in the league with a 16.7 percent power play. While the team hasn’t changed much with the man advantage, perhaps this is a signal that repairs are required. This late in the season, you can’t sit on the idea that things will get better despite never changing. While they earned three points on the weekend, there’s plenty to work on as this weekend approaches.
The Boys Are (Almost) Back in Town
The string of road-heavy weekends is finally coming to an end soon. This is the final weekend on the road for the Spitfires before they play seven-of-nine at the WFCU Centre.
First, though, they do get one home game. The Saginaw Spirit were in town on Thursday night, looking for their third-straight win against the Spitfires. Since the Spirit loaded up on scoring at the deadline, they’ve made life tough on the opposition. However, the Spitfires have won all three home games against the Spirit this season.
Following the game, the Spitfires hit the road for a Saturday night match against the Otters in Erie and a Sunday afternoon tilt in Mississauga against the Steelheads. Two weeks ago, the Spitfires beat the Otters 5-0 in Windsor, earning two essential points. Currently, the Spitfires sit four points up on the Otters for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but the Otters have three games in hand. Here is footage from their last game in Windsor.
On New Year’s Eve, the Spitfires suffered a rather embarrassing 9-5 loss at home to the Steelheads. Now, the Steelheads are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of a three-team log jam at 50 points.
The end of the regular season is on the horizon and we’ve officially entered the “each game is crucial” stage. While the Spitfires have a lengthy homestand coming up, getting points on the road is just as important. If they can manage to at least replicate last weekend, it’s a step in the right direction.
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.