Windsor Spitfires’ Weekly: Onuska Shines, New Lines, Feb. Storms

When normality goes out the window, you can either complain and get flustered or take advantage of opportunities as they come. As the calendar turns to February, the Windsor Spitfires have chosen the latter path, leading to roster changes, more ice time, and more points. With a busy weekend (and month) approaching, they got some of the answers they needed.

In Marc Savard’s first season behind the Windsor Spitfires’ bench, not only did he learn the roster but deal with a new atmosphere (no fans) and COVID-19-related lineup issues. None of it has been easy but the team has taken it all in stride. As the club hits the halfway mark (34 games), they have a chance to see what tools they have at their disposal. Some of their ideas worked out, while others became headscratchers. When the dust settled, though, the club came away with four big points last weekend as they prepare to deal with a busy week of hockey, COVID, and the inevitable mother nature.

Let’s unpack it all…

Matt Onuska Shows Value in Sweep

A week before the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) trade deadline, Spitfires’ general manager Bill Bowler brought in 19-year-old goaltender Matt Onuska from the London Knights for a late pick. He was stuck behind stud goaltender Brett Brochu so had only seen action in a handful of games over the last two seasons. However, with COVID-19 still around, the club felt he had untapped potential and the extra depth never hurts.

While he saw a bit of action in mid-January, the Spitfires needed him to step up as veteran Xavier Medina entered league protocol late last week. Onuska was set to start at home on Thursday night (Sarnia Sting) and Friday night on the road (Guelph Storm).

On Thursday night, he battled Sting third-stringer Dylan Grover (Ben Gaudreau and Anson Thornton out with league protocol) through the opening 20 minutes. While the Spitfires took a 3-2 lead after 20, they shut the door en route to a 5-2 win. Onuska made a few key saves down the stretch to give his team confidence.

Matt Onuska Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ goaltender Matt Onuska is providing big value in goal. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

With the Spitfires just coming out of league COVID-19 protocol, they needed strong goaltending and Onuska hit the mark.

Friday night was a similar story. The Spitfires’ offence peppered Storm goaltender Owen Bennett with 37 shots, hoping to give their goaltending a chance. It worked; they scored five while Onuska stopped 17 for the 5-2 win.

Nobody expects Onuska to lead the league in any category or run off Michael DiPietro-style numbers. If he can make the necessary saves, build the confidence, and give Medina a break, that’s perfect.

With the four points, the Spitfires slide into third in the Western Conference behind the Soo Greyhounds and the Flint firebird. They have multiple games-in-hand on both clubs, though, which could help them down the road.

Savard Splits Johnston and Cuylle

While Onuska’s weekend success was a big focus, it was tough to ignore the lineup on Thursday night.

For much of the season, Savard has run with Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) and captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) on his top line, often completed with winger Matthew Maggio. It’s been an ideal duo as Johnston, who was named the OHL Player of the Month for January, has 65 points in 35 games while Cuylle has 39 points in 30 games.

Related: Windsor Spitfires’ 2021-22 Awards Predictions

That changed on Thursday night, though, as veteran Daniel D’Amico joined Johnston and Pasquale Zito (Detroit Red Wings) on the top line. Cuylle and Maggio headed to the second line with rookie Ryan Abraham. It created a strange vibe as the players struggled to find their chemistry at times. While Cuylle and Maggio each had two points, Johnston was held pointless for just the fifth time this season.

Will Cuylle Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ captain Will Cuylle. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

After the game, Savard said it was about spreading out the offence.

“I know Johnston, Cuylle, and Maggio have been incredible for us, but I wanted to spread the love out a little bit here tonight,” Savard said post-game.

The shuffling continued on Friday as Savard put Johnston on the top line with Maggio and rookie Ethan Miedema while Cuylle and D’Amico skated on the second line with rookie Ryan Abraham. This time, the top line had four points while the second line was shut out.

While Savard is looking for something different, splitting up Johnston and Cuylle seems like a huge gamble. They’ve dominated for a reason; speed, creativity, intelligence, and electric shots. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

Storms Brewing as February Gets Started

Getting the four points last week was not only huge for the standings but the personal confidence, too. The Spitfires had multiple issues prior to the Sting game, including COVID-19, which hit Cuylle and Savard, among others. This meant practices and life were anything but routine.

“The guys haven’t been together, we had no consistency in practice, and the routines are all messed up,” Savard said on Thursday.

“They’re doing the best job they can and it’s the same with us (coaches). I haven’t been here for a week because of COVID-19 but (Jerrod Smith) and (Andy Delmore) did what they could do. We’re all working together here for the same goal.”

With the club getting healthier, they now look forward to a busy week, assuming it all plays out as scheduled.

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) during a game in late January. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

The Spitfires start the week at home on Thursday night with a rematch against the Storm. On Friday, they head to London to take on the Knights before finishing the weekend at home on Sunday evening against the Sarnia Sting.

All three games could prove critical for playoff positioning. The Storm and Knights are breathing down the Spitfires’ necks in the conference while the Sting are hanging onto the eighth spot. With games postponed every week, it’s going to be a mad dash come March and April. Bank those points while you have energy.

The Spitfires will be watching another force this week, too, as a winter storm barrels towards southern Ontario. A Winter Storm Warning was posted for the City of Windsor (and southwestern Ontario) until Thursday night, creating even more chaos in the region.

From a snowstorm to a hockey storm, this week is shaping up to be one for the Spitfires’ history books.

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