Seven months ago, the Windsor Spitfires were in a battle for the final playoff spot in the OHL’s Western Conference. Now, after a four-point weekend, they’re tied for the top seed as they get ready for an upcoming one-game road trip.
After struggling to close out games at the end of 2018-19, the Spitfires have found the recipe for close-game success. Coming into the weekend, they had a 5-2-1 record in games decided by two-or-fewer goals. It’s not an easy task, requiring depth and leadership, but they’re finding ways to get the jobs done.
This past weekend, they welcomed a classic rival to town, plus a top prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft, and came away with some big points.
Spitfires Edge Greyhounds
You can’t blame Spitfires’ fans for being mildly skeptical early this season. They ended last season being swept in the first round, had a highly-publicized off-season, and questions were asked heading into the home opener.
A month into the season, though, and one thing seems to be pretty clear — this team is pretty good. We’re not talking “plan the parade route” good, but “home ice is possible” good. That’s a huge step from being swept by the London Knights in March. Head coach Trevor Letowski’s new offensive systems appear to be working.
Thursday night, the Spitfires welcomed the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to the WFCU Centre, a team coming off an 11-2 thrashing of the North Bay Battalion a few days prior. The Hounds always give the Spitfires fits and this night was no different.
Just 26-seconds into the contest, Greyhounds’ forward Tye Kartye beat goaltender Kari Piiroinen off a turnover in front to give his club the 1-0 lead. Rory Kerins added another three-minutes later to quickly make it 2-0. The Spitfires battled back, though, to make it a 3-2 deficit after 20 minutes.
In the second, the teams exchanged goals, but neither could take control, and it was 4-3 Greyhounds after 40. A crazy third period saw just five shots for each club, but the Spitfires made the most of their chances. They scored three times, including the game-winner midway through the frame, to close out the 6-4 win.
In total, 14 different Spitfires registered at least one point, showing their depth again.
It was also their fourth-straight game with at least four goals; all wins. Come-from-behind wins aren’t ideal, but they all count and build confidence. They’re finding ways to get the two points and that’s what matters.
Byfield and Battle of the Brothers
Following the win, they had two days off before welcoming Quinton Byfield and the Sudbury Wolves into town.
It’s the only time this season that Spitfires’ fans got to see Byfield, who has taken the league by storm. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound 2018 first-overall pick is one of the top prospects for the 2020 NHL Draft and came into the game with 29 points in just 15 games.
The game also marked the battle between brothers as Christian (Wolves’ goaltender) and Cole (Spitfires’ forward) Purboo met for just the second time. Last season, they went head-to-head in North Bay and, while Cole was held pointless, the Spitfires beat the Battalion 4-2.
While Byfield and the brothers were the focus, Spitfires’ sniper Tyler Angle earned the early spotlight. He scored his tenth of the season in the first, grabbing the 1-0 lead.
Kalle Loponen tied it for the Wolves heading into the room, but the Spitfires took control in the second and third, taking a 4-1 lead. It was looking grim for the visitors, who were playing their third game in less than three days.
The Wolves kept at it, getting late goals from David Levin and Blake Murray. However, despite a rash of chances in the final minute, they couldn’t put the tying goal past Xavier Medina. While both teams were tired, the Spitfires came away with their fifth straight win, 4-3.
The win puts the Spitfires into a tie with the Saginaw Spirit for the top seed in the Western Conference (19 points). Now, they get ready to head up north.
Oh, who won the Battle of the Purboo Brothers? With Cole’s two assists, he moves to 2-0. Assuming status quo, they’ll have one more round in Sudbury in January.
Saturday Night Showdown
When you’re on a winning streak, you want that momentum to keep going. Downtime isn’t always the best option. This weekend, though, the Spitfires have a scheduling anomaly — just one game.
They will head up I-75 and into northern Ontario for a Saturday night rematch with the Greyhounds. After three losses in 2017-18 in the Soo, the Spitfires went 1-1-1 in three one-goal games last season. The fans up north are passionate and the GFL Memorial Gardens is not an easy rink to take a point in, let alone a win.
The Spitfires will be without first-round pick Wyatt Johnston, too, as he heads to Swift Current, SK, for the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. It takes place in Swift Current and Medicine Hat, AB from Nov. 2-9. Johnston was the sixth-overall pick in April and has two points in nine games.
Despite missing Johnston, the team has a healthy roster and the lines have been set for a few weeks, save for a few of the rookies rotating in. This means no changes to the lineup, though there’s still plenty to work on in practice.
While the power-play has improved dramatically — currently seventh at 26.1 percent — their penalty kill still leaves something to be desired. It sits at just 72.7 percent, which isn’t far from the basement. They haven’t been below 75 percent in five seasons; it’s an area of pride for them. Expect Letowski to drill this home until it improves.
Despite their flaws, there’s a vibe around this team. The sweep is behind them and, with each win, they build confidence and look towards the future. While there is room to learn and grow, they find ways to get the job done. That’s a big deal and worth keeping an eye on.