Windsor Spitfires’ Weekly: 3 US Turkey Takeaways & Teddy Time

Adversity is supposed to make a team stronger in the long run. The Windsor Spitfires are about to find out how true that is. After losing two-of-three in mid-November, the club came into last weekend looking to rebound. Instead, they found more questions than answers as they aim to turn the tide before the teddy bears start flying.

Last season, the Spitfires started slower than they wanted. At this same point (22-game mark), they were 9-9-2-2 and searching for answers. However, after a few tweaks, they rose to the top of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Western Conference. It was an unexpected journey but one that the team and its fans embraced. Now, after starting this season 8-0-3-0, they’ve hit a bit of a rut and need to find a way to get out of it before it’s too late. This weekend did them no favours, though, as an extra period of hockey saved them from coming away empty-handed.

3 US Thanksgiving Takeaways

Weekend Results:

Wed., Nov. 23 – 6-3 loss – Owen Sound Attack (home)
Fri., Nov. 25 – 4-3 loss (shootout) – Flint Firebirds (home)
Sat., Nov. 26 – 7-2 loss – Saginaw Spirit (road)

3. Need a Full 60 Minutes

The old hockey cliche is “games are 60 minutes”, but when a team is consistently struggling at the start of them, it becomes the truth. The Spitfires are finding out the hard way that you can’t play 50 minutes and expect to win on most nights.

Matthew Maggio Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ forward Matthew Maggio (81) has to find a way to pull his team together during this unusual slump. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Through the first 16 games, the Spitfires played consistent, fast-paced hockey. While they had nine games decided by two-or-fewer goals, they always felt like they had a chance to win. However, over the last six games, something has changed. Their offence has had just one game with four or more goals (after averaging five per game) while allowing five or more in five games. The result was falling out of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Top-10 for the first time this season.

Slides like this are never easy but it’s part of the game. Good teams find a way to work through it, though. Head coach Marc Savard said they have to find their earlier successful blueprint.

“It’s like we’re searching for a little bit more of an identity,” he said on Wednesday. “At the beginning of the season, we were fast, we forechecked hard, and our transition game was amazing … Now, I think we’ve lacked that consistency a bit. That’s the thing about being a good pro; I’ve gone through it and guys go through it. Being young, you have to be able to come to the rink every day and put a good effort in. We have to find that identity again and be consistent.”

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The coaches can only prepare the players so much. New captain Matthew Maggio learned from former captain Will Cuylle. Now it’s time to see Maggio’s knowledge put to work as his leadership team attempts to bring this group out of its funk. It’s not going to be easy but nobody said it would be.

2. Too Comfortable at WFCU Centre?

Last season, the Spitfires went an impressive 25-7-1-1 at the WFCU Centre. They came to the rink every night knowing they had a great chance of grabbing two points. However, too much of a good thing can hurt a team.

Let’s be clear – there’s nothing wrong with being confident and comfortable in your home arena. You want to make life miserable for the opponents. In the old Windsor Arena, teams feared playing the Spitfires because of how intimidating it was to play there. However, when you get too comfortable and too relaxed, you ease up and take the points for granted.

WFCU Centre in Windsor
A busy WFCU Centre in Windsor can be a huge benefit for the hometown Spitfires. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

The Spitfires started their home schedule by going undefeated in regulation in their first nine (7-0-2-0). The 6-1 loss to the London Knights on Nov. 12 was a humbling experience and the Attack/Firebirds games reinforced that. When everything is going right, overconfidence creeps in, and teams will hurt you. Defenceman Nick De Angelis said they got that reality check loud and clear.

“We got a little sense knocked into us,” he said following Wednesday’s loss.

Your home rink should be a place of comfort; you know the ins and outs, the little nooks and crannies, and the way everything on the ice works. Losing multiple games at the WFCU Centre isn’t what this club had envisioned. However, now that they know how bad it feels, they need to use that to their advantage. This is a tough league but they have the ability to win on any given night if they play their game for a full 60 minutes. One bad stretch does not make a team, especially when they’ve tasted success this calendar year. It’s time to refocus and take back their ice.

1. Bowler Has Decisions to Make

At the start of the season, there were plenty of questions about the team. Would Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) and Maggio (New York Islanders) return? Could the team find enough offence to replace numerous graduates? Were the defence and goaltending strong enough to keep them atop the Western Conference?

Related: Windsor Spitfires Start 2021-22 Trade Deadline with a Bang

The team exceeded expectations and was ranked as high as seventh in Canada earlier in November. Life was going their way… until the Knights game. That seemed to derail everything. Now, the looming question that needs to be addressed – will general manager Bill Bowler buy, sell, or stand pat?

Windsor Spitfires' GM Bill Bowler
Windsor Spitfires general manager Bill Bowler. (Dave Jewell/THW)

Offensively, this is a “buy” season. They’re still on pace for 299 goals, which would be six short of last season and surpass every other Spitfires’ roster since the 2010 Memorial Cup Championship. Aside from this ugly stretch, all four lines have contributed and multiple players are having career seasons.

However, defensively, it’s another story. They’re on pace to allow 275 goals, 27 more than last season (248), and the most since the 2014-15 season when they won just 24 games (305 goals). They’re a young group with veteran Michael Renwick being the only player with more than one season of experience coming into 2022-23. Goaltending is also an issue; starter Mathias Onuska’s 4.21 goals-against average (GAA) and .869 save percentage (SV%) in 15 games are worse than last season (3.34 GAA and .882 SV% in 26 games). Fortunately, rookie Joe Costanzo has stepped up with a 3.34 GAA and .893 SV% in 10 games.

Would upgrades in all three areas be enough to get the Spitfires back on track? Would Bowler be wiser to build around the young core they’ve created? With the January 10 trade deadline approaching quickly, decisions need to be made.

Teddy Bears to Fly at WFCU Centre

While the team tries to sort itself out, the fur will be flying at the WFCU Centre on Saturday night when they face the Barrie Colts for the first time since Feb. 22, 2020. It’s the annual Teddy Bear Toss; an event that brings joy to just about everyone.

For over a decade now, teams across junior and minor hockey leagues pick a date to hold the event. Fans are encouraged to bring a new stuffed animal to the game. When the home team scores their first goal, everyone tosses their bears onto the ice where volunteers and players collect them for local charities. It’s something everyone looks forward to, even in a highly-emotional game.

What happens if the home team doesn’t score? It depends on the arena but, usually, the fans are told to throw them during the media timeout in the third period. Strangely, this happened three times over a weekend in December 2016. Former Spitfires star goaltender Michael DiPietro posted three-straight shutouts during a three-game weekend road trip in Northern Ontario, and all three games were the respective home teams’ teddy tosses. It will go down as one of the oddest holiday situations we’ve ever seen.

Last season, former Spitfires’ forward Pasquale Zito had the teddy bear goal and the club collected 2,269 stuffed animals for local charities. Let’s see how many the club can get this season!

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