Windsor Spitfires’ Weekly: March to First & Johnston Milestone

The regular-season fate of the Windsor Spitfires now belongs to them. After 55-plus games of up-and-down battles, the team heads into the final dozen games looking squarely at the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Western Conference crown. March Break saw them hit the road for five games but a growing confidence and a return home have them set up nicely for the final stretch.

Coming into 2021-22, the Spitfires weren’t really sure what they were dealing with. The COVID-19 postponement of 2020-21 meant almost half of the team had graduated or left. Add in a new coach with new systems, along with plenty of pandemic uncertainty, and this season was a toss-up. The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) had ranked them in the Top 10 before the puck even dropped but they had to prove they were worthy of that spot. Now, with 12 games left, they find themselves within reach of the conference title, a feat that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. It’s not going to be easy, as the pandemic-adjusted schedule is a doozy, but this is a confident bunch. This won’t be lost without a fight.

Let’s get at it…

Spitfires Build Road Confidence

Coming into last week, the Spitfires had put themselves within reach of the first spot in the Western Conference. However, most of their success came at home (20-7-1-1) and the road portion (11-8-2-2) was about to be evened out. They had to sink or swim at a crucial time.

After a weekend in Erie against the Otters, the Spits continued to play out of their suitcases. It started on Tuesday night against the Sarnia Sting, followed by a Wednesday night tilt in Owen Sound against the Attack, and finishing up on Saturday night with the Flint Firebirds.

The two nights were similar battles. The Sting and Attack are the eighth and sixth seeds, respectively, but still give the top seeds all they can handle. With Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard out for both with a two-game suspension (along with defenceman Andrew Perrott), assistant coaches Andy Delmore and Jerrod Smith had to put together crafty, effective game plans with no room for error.

Windsor Spitfires' coaches Andy Delmore (L), Marc Savard (C), and Jerrod Smith (R)
Windsor Spitfires’ coaches Andy Delmore (L), Marc Savard (C), and Jerrod Smith (R) in January. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Tuesday night, Sting goaltender Anson Thornton made 28 saves through the opening 40 minutes as his club opened a 3-0 lead. While the Spitfires eventually fired 40 at him, they couldn’t find the equalizer in a 4-3 loss. While it was a tough loss, the momentum from the comeback paid off as they played a game of pond hockey against the Attack on Wednesday night.

The teams exchanged multi-goal outbursts, each scoring at least one in every period. Fortunately for the Spitfires, much of that was thanks to veteran Daniel D’Amico’s hat-trick. It got them to 5-5 after regulation and that’s where Matthew Maggio gave the visitors a needed 6-5 win.

While the Sting game was frustrating, the two points against the Attack were the step the Spitfires needed.

Sweeping First-Place Firebirds

While the games against the Sting and Attack were important, Saturday and Sunday were arguably the keys to the weekend. The Flint Firebirds sat in first in the conference but the Spitfires have had impressive success against them this season going 5-0-0-1, outscoring 33-18. They also had Savard back behind the bench.

Firebirds goaltender Luke Cavallinn was out for Saturday’s game at home because of a fight earlier in the week against the Guelph Storm. Rookie Nathaniel Day got the start and showed promise early as the Firebirds jumped out to a 2-1 lead. However, that’s when it all changed.

Spitfires’ veteran Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) scored within the first five minutes in each period to record his first career hat-trick and hit a very important milestone (more below). His hat-trick was key as the Spitfires were simply too much for the Firebirds. The home side tired as the game wore on, helping the visitors take the 6-3 win.

Wyatt Johnston Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ forward Wyatt Johnston is hitting milestones. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Sunday was much of the same. Cavallin returned from his suspension as the home-and-home wrapped up but the rust was evident early. The Spitfires scored five in the opening 20 minutes, by five different players, outshooting the Firebirds 19-6. It was an onslaught the 5,061 in attendance hadn’t seen in months.

After that, it was a bit of cruise control as the teams exchanged goals through the final 40 minutes for a 7-4 Spitfires win.

The Sting loss was tough but beating the Attack and sweeping the Firebirds was exactly what the Spitfires wanted. They’re now a single point back of the top seed.

Johnston Ahead with a Century

Getting the points was a large step towards the elusive conference title but another major milestone was hit on Saturday night.

Johnston’s third goal was not only his first career hat-trick but his 100th point on the season. He’s the first OHL player to reach it this season.

He also becomes the first Spitfires’ player to reach the Century Club since star defenceman Ryan Ellis (Philadelphia Flyers) had 101 points in 2010-11 and the first forward to reach it since Taylor Hall’s (Boston Bruins) 106 points in 2009-10.

Related: Stars Draft Wyatt Johnston 23rd Overall

Johnston had a chance to reflect on the milestone after Sunday’s game.

“It’s something that’s pretty cool,” he said.

“A lot of it is a credit to the teammates we have here. There are a ton of great players who have been able to help me a lot and help me succeed and especially the team. I definitely see that stuff but I’m more important on winning games.”

If Johnston (currently 102) passes Hall’s 106 points, his next targets will be Jason Spezza’s 116 points in 2000-01 and Peter Sarno who had 121 in 1997-98.

The Fight for First in West

The Spitfires have no time to sit back and enjoy the success, though, as this week’s schedule is just as brutal as last week.

It starts on Tuesday night when the Kitchener Rangers come to town. The visitors have gone 4-2 head-to-head this season and are in a fight for one of the final two playoff spots along with the Sting and Otters. This will be a battle for the Spitfires but Savard said they have plenty of motivation.

“It’s just playing for first place in the west,” he said.

“That’s our goal. We’ve been doing that for a while now … we want home ice throughout the playoffs. That’ll be the driving force for all of us. I think we’re all zoned in on that.”

Thursday night, the Spitfires welcome the Saginaw Spirit to town and are 3-0-1-1 against the visitors so far. The Spirit are last in the conference, have lost nine-of-10, and 13 points back of the ninth-seeded Otters.

After the game, the club hits the road for two crucial games against the Rory Kerins and the Soo Greyhounds. Aside from a pair of dominating Spitfires’ wins up north in January (combined 15-6 score), the season series has been very close. The Hounds sit just a single point back (two more games played) so expect playoff-style chaos.

Rory Kerins Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds
Rory Kerins of the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds. (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

With 12 games left, the Spitfires’ magic number to make the playoffs is one (point). More importantly, though, they’re still fighting for home ice and the much-desired conference title. It means 60 minutes of hockey every night. A small slipup could mean everything this season and, when you’re this close, it’s not worth the risk.

Game time on Tuesday is 7:05 p.m. and Thursday is 7:30 p.m.

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