It’s been a long 2021-22 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season full of ups, downs, and some flat-out stoppages. The Windsor Spitfires have stuck with it, though, and finally made history. After a six-point weekend, they’ve added two massive experiences to their season résumé — OHL West Division and Western Conference regular-season champions.
From roster turnover to new coaches, COVID-19 stoppages, to various numbers of fans in the stands (or no fans at all), this has been anything but a normal OHL season. Through all the chaos and confusion, head coach Marc Savard has kept his team focused, instilled an impressive work ethic, and created systems that would withstand anything life could throw at the team. Despite a slow start, they’ve peaked at the perfect time and brought a 10-game winning streak into this past weekend. All they needed were four points, either via wins or London Knights/Flint Firebirds’ losses, and the title was theirs.
Let’s go through the clinching weekend…
Spitfires Treat Fans to Thriller Against Storm
If the Spitfires wanted to clinch the conference, their last home game of the regular season seemed like a good place to start. At the end of February, the Spitfires were handed an embarrassing 7-1 road loss to the Guelph Storm. Thursday night was their chance for revenge.
A season-high crowd of 5,106 took in the game on Fan Appreciation Night. However, soon after the opening puck drop, February memories came roaring back. The Storm opened the scoring with a pair of goals less than eight minutes into the contest. No matter what the Spitfires did, they seemed out of sync.
When the home team had won 21-of-22 at the WFCU Centre and 10 straight overall, though, they weren’t giving up. The Spitfires pressed and finally broke through when Daniel D’Amico scored with a man advantage, his 28th goal of the season. Captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) then tied it up with under a minute left in the first, and the barn was rocking again.
In the final 40 minutes, the teams played tight-checking, disorganized hockey. It’s only appropriate that they ended up in a shootout. That’s where Wyatt Johnston, Matthew Maggio, and, surprisingly, defenceman Daniil Sobolev all scored to cap off the 4-3 Spitfires’ win.
This was far from pretty. While the Storm scouted the Spitfires perfectly, intercepting passes and creating havoc, Savard’s club kept at it. He said it wasn’t as organized as they wanted, but they got the two points.
“Good teams find a way to win,” Savard said. “It wasn’t our best game but still not our worst. We didn’t give up a ton; it was just a little sloppy for the coaching staff’s liking.”
Even ugly wins count, and the Spitfires’ win streak was extended 11 games as they hit the bus for the rematch in Guelph on Friday night.
Spitfires’ Honour Graduates
Prior to Thursday’s game, the Spitfires held a ceremony to honour their overage (21-year-old graduating) players — forward D’Amico, defenceman Louka Henault, and defenceman Andrew Perrott. Henault and D’Amico have been mainstays in the lineup since they were drafted in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, in 2017.
The 6-foot, 179-pound Henault came to the club from the Toronto Marlboros U16s as an offensive defenceman and has increased his point totals every season, including 65 points in 63 games this season. D’Amico is a 5-foot-9, 175-pound waterbug out of the Marlboros and has become a consistent 50-point player, including a career-high 56 points so far this season.
Perrott came to the Spitfires in a deadline deal with the Owen Sound Attack. Originally a Knights’ pick, he’s a 6-foot, 215-pound, two-way defenceman who’s put up a career-best 49 points in 60 games… with a bit of grit. This was a big get for general manager Bill Bowler, and the veteran has been vital to the club’s run so far.
After the game, Maggio said that all three veterans are essential to the club and are looked up to by the entire roster.
“Having Henault and Damico here since I got here, they welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “They’re the pillars of the culture that Windsor wants to create; two positive guys that are always doing their best and working hard. They’re the backbone of this team and pushing our team with the leadership they have. Perrott coming in, he’s been nothing but great and all three lead by example with the way they play. Even though I’m just a year younger, you’re always looking up to those guys.”
The Conference Clincher
While the 7-1 loss in February was in the back of their minds heading into the Sleeman Centre in Guelph on Friday, they came in with 11 straight wins, and that confidence showed quick.
The Spitfires jumped out to an early 2-0 lead thanks to D’Amico and Johnston (Dallas Stars). While the Storm cut the lead in half, D’Amico added a power-play marker with seconds left to give the visitors the 3-1 lead after 20. From there, the offence took over, scoring two more in the second and another pair in the third for a 7-1 final. This was a statement.
Savard’s club got their revenge by using six different goalscorers and allowing just 22 shots. It was a pretty perfect road game and the game they needed, both for the standings and regaining the mental edge.
When the buzzer sounded, it was official: the Spitfires had clinched the top seed in the West Division. It’s the club’s first regular-season division title since 2009-10 when the team went 50-12-1-5 en route to becoming Memorial Cup champs.
After Thursday’s game, Maggio said that after growing up watching the Spitfires, this season had been a dream come true.
“It reminds me of the first-place team I was on in Ottawa (2018-19 67’s who went to OHL Final after a 50-win season),” he said. “Just being on a team like this, and contributing, means the world to me. I think every kid grows up dreaming to play in their hometown and be on a winning team and [having] a chance at a Memorial Cup. To be able to live that through is pretty special.”
Who do they face in the first round? That will be determined this week; it’ll be either the Erie Otters or Sarnia Sting.
Spitfires Extend Streak Against Spirit
With the top seed clinched, the Spitfires still had one more test this weekend: a Saturday night tilt in Saginaw with the pesky Spirit. While the home side is last in the league, they’ve beat the Firebirds, Knights, and Soo Greyhounds over the last few weeks. Teams can’t take them lightly.
Fortunately for the Spitfires, the first 30 minutes were exactly as they expected. D’Amico scored his 31st early in the game, and the club planted two more for a 3-0 lead halfway through. However, the Spirit have loved playing spoilers and tried it again, tying the game at three early in the third.
It wasn’t meant to be, though. Spitfires’ forward Oliver Peer, signed as a free agent last summer, made a highlight-reel move around the defence before finishing off the play to give his club the 4-3 lead. Ryan Abraham sealed it into the open cage with seconds left for a 5-3 win.
Getting a scare from the last-place team isn’t what Savard or his club wanted, but they got the two points and extended their winning streak to 13 games. It’s the longest streak in the OHL this season, passing the Hamilton Bulldogs, who had 12. The next target is 14, held by the 2009-10 Spitfires’ Memorial Cup roster.
Regular Season Wraps Up on the Road
With the conference wrapped up, the Spitfires get ready to hit the road for their final two games. That could be beneficial, though. The team went 25-7-1-1 at home, second only in the league to the Hamilton Bulldogs (26), and their 19 road wins are tied for third in the league. Savard’s club is gaining confidence away from their barn. On Thursday, Maggio said that while playing at home is easier, they want to be good in any rink.
“Playing on the road is a bit tougher,” he said. “You’re going to have bus legs and going into different rinks… It’s pretty common throughout hockey that you’ll be better at home, but that’s something we’re trying to work on for playoffs, becoming just as good on the road as we are at home.”
The Spitfires have played 11 of their last 16 away from the WFCU Centre, and it’s built their confidence. They’ll get two more chances this weekend. On Friday, they head to Erie for a match with the Otters. This could have serious playoff implications as the Otters are fighting for their playoff lives. The regular season wraps up on Saturday as the Spitfires head back to Guelph for a final match against the Storm.
On Wednesday afternoon, the CHL released their new top 10, and the Spitfires were ranked fourth. Expectations are high, and they can’t let their guard down. With the first seed wrapped up, they’ll use this week to rest and fix any bad habits that have formed, so a few days off have come at the perfect time.
Playoff tickets are on sale on the Spitfires’ site. Game 1 is scheduled for Thursday, April 21, while Game 2 is Saturday, April 23, both in Windsor, with full details to be determined.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.