The Christmas break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Windsor Spitfires. Points have been hard to come by since they dealt goaltender Michael DiPietro to the Ottawa 67’s but the team managed to finish the weekend off in style.
After trading DiPietro, the Spitfires lost two straight to the Sarnia Sting and were hoping to salvage a couple of wins before the OHL broke for Christmas. Instead, it was a weekend of highs-and-lows with just two points but a whole lot of Christmas cheer coming to Windsor-and-Essex County.
Teddy Bear Send-Off
Traditions, like the Teddy Bear Toss, can be a beautiful part of sports. On Sunday afternoon, Spits fans brought new stuffed animals to the rink for the 2 p.m. game against the Saginaw Spirit. The Spitfires also sold stuffed animals in the concourse where proceeds went to charity. It created an incredible atmosphere as hundreds lined up for this great cause.
The Spitfires lost back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday night, against the Erie Otters and Spirit, respectively, extending their losing streak to four games. However, when you have a crowd of over 4,700, and a lot of furry friends, you do everything possible to get the two points.
It just took a little while to get there.
Kari Piiroinen took the net for the Spitfires, hoping to rebound after the 7-4 loss to the Otters. He was countered by Spirit backup Tristan Lennox. While Bode Wilde opened the scoring for the Spirit just 10 minutes into the contest, Piiroinen settled right in and allowed just one goal on 15 shots in the first period.
Early in the second, Jake Goldowski made it 2-0 Spirit on a power-play goal. You got the feeling the Spitfires were running out of gas and frustration was setting in. They wouldn’t be shut out on this day, would they?
Enter the Will Cuylle line.
At 7:52 of the second, Cuylle took a pass from Jean-Luc Foudy and wired it over Lennox’s glove. Cuylle looked to the stands with his arms raised, smiled and the bears came raining down on him. The Spitfires’ bench scattered around the rink, carrying and collecting the stuffed animals, as fans threw over 4,200 bears onto the WFCU Centre ice. It was a beautiful sight:
— Windsor Spitfires (@SpitsHockey) December 18, 2018
After the ice was cleared, the Spitfires used the teddy momentum and kept working. Connor Corcoran tied the game at two at 11:28 and that’s how the second period ended.
The teams exchanged goals in the third, including a wild goal from Tyler Angle with 1:30 left and Piiroinen on the bench. Fans had been treated to a barn burner so another five minutes of hockey, excluding any shootout, only seemed appropriate. It didn’t get to a shootout, though. At 3:29, Daniel D’Amico took a pass from Angle and, while on his knees, wired it glove side on Lennox to give the Spitfires a dramatic 4-3 win.
Piiroinen made 33 saves for the win while Lennox made 25 saves in the loss. It was a little bit of revenge after the Spitfires’ 6-2 loss in Saginaw just 40 hours earlier.
Timeout for Turkey and Tinkering
After losing four straight, the win was a nearly ideal way for the Spitfires to hit the Christmas break. Losing DiPietro wasn’t easy but it’s clear this team wasn’t as focused as it could be. Whether it was system-oriented, emotions or something completely different, this hasn’t been the Spitfires team fans have come to know. They’ve looked lost at times as if the motivation just wasn’t there.
The players now head home for some quality family time, turkey and second-half preparation. That doesn’t mean the work is done at the rink, though.
It’s Santa’s gift to the team, a chance for head coach Trevor Letowski and his staff to go through their systems and lines to figure out how to take that next step. While there are some positives, such as a penalty kill that’s working at 83.9 percent overall and 88.9 percent at home, the negatives are just as glaring. The power play converts at just 15.9 percent, good for 17th in the league. That includes seven shorthanded goals against; not exactly a stat to be happy about.
We can’t forget the trade deadline on Jan. 10, either. While the OHL has a mandatory trade freeze from Dec. 18-27, general manager Warren Rychel will take some time to look over his roster and strategize about how the next two or three seasons should shape out.
He’s been the architect behind three Mastercard Memorial Cups and is in full rebuild mode now. After the 2017 Memorial Cup, Rychel rebuilt the team and comes into this deadline with a much younger roster that’s learning the OHL ropes. However, he still has trade chips he can use to further the plan.
Thanks to the DiPietro trade, the draft-pick cupboards are looking much better but there’s always room for improvement.
The break lasts until Dec. 27 when the unofficial second-half gets underway. The Spitfires are back in action on Dec. 28 for a Friday night road tilt against the London Knights. Their next home game is New Year’s Eve when former Spitfire Cole Carter and the Mississauga Steelheads come calling for a 2 p.m. showdown.