With 60 games under their belt, the Windsor Spitfires are staring at a rough road as they try to hold off the Erie Otters for that final playoff spot. However, while getting into the playoffs is important, there are five mini-stories unfolding that are worth watching, too.
From goaltending to getting the youth plenty of playing time, the big picture is met by short stories that will likely play a role in how the team does during the final stretch. Let’s take a look at these five stories and see how they could prove critical in the Spitfires getting that coveted “X” next to their name after the regular season is done.
1. Crease Battle: Colton Incze v. Kari Piiroinen
This is the story nobody saw coming. The plan at the start of the season was simple: trade star goaltender Michael DiPietro and have the Finnish rookie Kari Piiroinen take over. Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel would then find a suitable backup and away we’d go. Rychel brought in veteran Colton Incze from the Niagara IceDogs, which made perfect sense. He could mentor and backup Piiroinen.
Instead, Incze has taken over the starter’s role while Piiroinen sits on the bench. If you’re a contender, this is normal. The Spitfires are rebuilding, though, and it’s Piiroinen’s NHL draft season. Do you see the dilemma?
Through 23 games, Piiroinen has a 4.24 goals-against average (GAA) and an .873 save percentage (SV%). Those aren’t great numbers, but we’ve seen flashes of greatness and the potential is certainly there. Unfortunately, it’s meant more bench time than ice time with just two starts in February and none since Feb. 7 at home.
This takes nothing away from Incze as a player. He’s done what’s needed with a 3.25 GAA and an .899 SV% since coming to the Spitfires. Plus, he has raised his stock. The issue is that the youngster needs playing time. Sink or swim, Piiroinen has to get into the crease. Incze has 21 appearances for the Spitfires since the trade, including eight in February. Piiroinen has 14 but just two in February. That’s not a good ratio.
Getting playing time as a rookie isn’t supposed to be easy. Even if you’re struggling, though, it’s still necessary and part of the development process. Both Incze and Piiroinen are guys you want on your team. They bring the passion you want from a player. If you’re building for the future, though, one needs to get the playing time and he’s not.
2. Sustaining Energy on Shortened Bench
Ideally, an OHL team has 13 forwards, seven defencemen and two goaltenders available for use before each game. What happens when two players get injured, though, and nobody replaces them?
That’s been the Spitfires’ struggle for the last month. When defenceman Grayson Ladd and forward Kyle McDonald got hurt during the same game no-less, it put a large dent in the Spitfires lineup. Normally teams have at least one replacement both up front and on defence. That wasn’t the case here, though.
Spitfires head coach Trevor Letowski didn’t have any healthy scratches prior to the injuries, making this situation that much more difficult. Both Ladd and McDonald were expected to miss the rest of the regular season.
As a result, the Spitfires have gone with five defencemen and 11 forwards since the injuries. Added ice time is great but it also creates quicker fatigue and when you play multiple games in a weekend that takes its toll. Most teams go through busy weekends with injuries or suspensions but that doesn’t take away from its effects on a team.
Proper conditioning and rest will become essential as this shortened lineup heads into the final stretch. It’s not an ideal situation by any means but it’s the one the Spitfires were dealt. The Spitfires’ Jr. B affiliate, the LaSalle Vipers, are in the first round of their playoffs. If their season ends before the Spitfires’ does, players could be called up. That would be an appreciated boost. However, we need to take one step at a time.
3. Foudy and Cuylle Connection
For a rebuilding club, having dynamic rookies is essential for the future. The Spitfires have a pair of elite forwards who are living up to their draft hype.
Rychel selected 5-foot-9 playmaker Jean-Luc Foudy 10th overall in last April’s draft. Then, in August, he sent several picks to the Peterborough Petes for 2018 third-overall pick Will Cuylle, who refused to report to the Petes.
It took some time for the duo to adjust, but they’ve hit the gas pedal since the World Under-17 Challenge in November. Now, Foudy and Cuylle are sitting fifth and sixth, respectively, in the OHL rookie scoring race. Foudy has six goals and 43 points in 55 games while Cuylle has 24 goals and 37 points in 55 games.
They’ve been on a line together since December with the third spot going to either 6-foot-9 Dallas Stars prospect Curtis Douglas or veteran Cole Purboo. Foudy has become the creative one while Cuylle gets ready in the slot. Douglas and Purboo use their size to create room for the two.
Foudy and Cuylle are on pace for a combined 92 points this season, which puts them among five rookie duos who live in Spitfire history:
- 5. Rob Shearer and Ed Jovanovski – combined 92 points in 1993-94
- 4. Gabriel Vilardi and Mikhail Sergachev – combined 95 points in 2015-16
- 3. Alexander Khoklachev and Nick Ebert – combined 117 points in 2010-11
- 2. Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis – combined 127 points in 2007-08
- 1. Todd Warriner and Cory Stillman – combined 165 points in 1990-91
Out of those five pairs, the only pair that were both forwards were Warriner and Stillman. In fact, Stillman won 1990-91 OHL Rookie of the Year. It puts Cuylle and Foudy in pretty elite company and worth the price of admission.
4. Finding Their Road Game
Life out of a suitcase isn’t always fun but that’s part of being in the OHL. The Spitfires have found out the hard way just how frustrating it can be. Through 30 road games, they have just eight wins, which is fourth-lowest in the league, and five losses in extra time. It has been a tough lesson for this young group. Fortunately, Letowski has grounded out some road success in the last month with just one regulation loss in their last six games.
The last time the Spitfires had single-digit road wins in a season was 2012-13 when they went 9-19-3-3. It’s only happened once in Rychel’s tenure as general manager.
There are no guarantees in the OHL, but if the Spitfires can win a couple more on the road down the stretch, it certainly makes the standings that much more interesting. The Spitfires have four road games remaining, all of which are against Western Conference teams. That should give them an extra boost.
5. Closing Teams Out
The final story to watch for involves gaining valuable experience at the end of games. The Spitfires often find themselves in control, only to watch it slip away. We saw it multiple times this month where the Spitfires were either ahead or tied late in the game, only to lose somehow. Road losses against the Otters, Owen Sound Attack and Mississauga Steelheads are examples, as was the overtime loss at home to the North Bay Battalion last weekend.
Part of this comes from experience but part of it is that killer mentality that teams need at this time of the season. Hitting the gas pedal at the right time of the game can mean a world of difference and this is where veterans come into play. Guys like Sean Allen, brought in from the Oshawa Generals in the offseason, veteran Connor Corcoran and captain Luke Boka all know how to get the job done. The youth will lean on them to light the way. It’s better to be tired after giving it everything than to have any regrets.
The OHL is about using your experience and that’s what the Spitfires are learning right now. By figuring out how to close out teams, they’ll not only have a better chance at the playoff berth but crucial experience that will benefit them down the road. With just eight games to go, there are plenty of stories to watch for with the Spitfires. These five stories will make for some very intriguing hockey between now and mid-March.