The cliche “it’s not how you start, but how you finish” might be fitting for the Windsor Spitfires this past weekend. On a season-long, five-game road trip, they found a way to battle through injuries and inconsistent hockey to finish strong. Now, they’re ready for some home cooking.
Three weeks ago, the Spitfires had a makeover at the 2023 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) trade deadline. Everyone knew it would take time to adjust. After two home games with the new roster, they immediately hit the road for five games over two weekends, including the annual northern road swing. While it was a good chance for the roster to bond, playing on the road isn’t easy for the best of clubs. They found themselves searching for consistency as teams looked to take them out. However, a strong finish to this past weekend gives them plenty of momentum heading home.
3 Takeaways from Northern Road Swing
Thurs., Jan. 26 – 5-3 loss at North Bay Battalion
Fri., Jan. 27 – 3-2 loss at Sudbury Wolves
Sun., Jan. 29 – 9-4 win at Soo Greyhounds
3. On-Ice Leadership as Important as Locker Room
Before the deadline, the club emphasized how important their off-ice cohesion and chemistry are. They were as tight-knit a club as we’ve seen in a long time and general manager Bill Bowler didn’t want to upset that. At the deadline, he brought in two former captains, Shane Wright and Jacob Holmes, plus three other veterans who were good in the room. From all indications so far, the transition has been seamless. However, having leadership on the ice is proving just as important as it is in the room.
Losing a toe-to-toe battle on Thursday with a top contender in the Battalion wasn’t fun, but the loss to the Wolves on Friday hurt even more. That club is battling for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Spitfires came out flat and showed little life in front of a jam-packed Sudbury Community Arena. They knew it was unacceptable. While head coach Marc Savard gave them a talk, captain Matthew Maggio wasn’t happy about the result. He took charge on Sunday in the Soo with a four-point effort, giving him a league-leading 68 points through 43 games. The other veterans didn’t go quietly, either, as six of them, including Holmes (Dallas Stars), Alex Christopoulos, and Michael Renwick, all had two-point afternoons. In total, 11 players had a point, which makes a big statement.
Before the start of the five-game trip, Maggio said they wanted first overall in case the OHL Championship goes to Game 7. The Spitfires now sit just six points back of the Ottawa 67’s for first in the league. They have all kinds of talent and leadership but, if they want that number one spot, they need to bring it every night.
2. Injuries Play a Factor
The club began their five-game trip with goaltender Mathias Onuska and forward Ryan Abraham on the shelf with injuries. On the first weekend, they lost defenceman Daniil Sobolev and forward Oliver Peer to injuries and the woes continued up north.
While they got Peer back, they had to go without Wright (Seattle Kraken) due to a lower-body injury suffered in practice. He was listed as day-to-day throughout the weekend but didn’t play. The club was forced to call up Junior B forwards Nick Graniero and Wylie Birkett. Neither registered a point but they saw plenty of action, especially on Sunday, and gave Savard enough bodies to roll four lines. When the team’s on the back end of a long trip, that’s a huge asset. The club also signed 2022 fourth-round pick forward Cole Davis and he could make his debut shortly.
Related: OHL: 5 Spitfires’ Stories to Watch in the Second Half of 2022-23
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All season, Savard has raved about their overall depth and how every line can contribute on any given night. That depth came into play all weekend as the coaches did their best to get the right line combinations. It’s never an easy task, but they found their stride during Sunday’s game against the Greyhounds. We’ll see if they can get some of the injured players back into the lineup this weekend.
1. Home Cooking Needed
Road trips are never easy, but a convincing 9-4 win over the divisional rival Greyhounds is satisfying, especially in the last game before heading home.
Before the road trip, the club was 11-6-1-0 away from the WFCU Centre, a far cry from their 16-3-2-1 record at home, which is just second in the league behind the 67’s. The Spitfires have averaged 5,537 fans (capacity 6,250) over five games since Christmas and 5,874 in two post-deadline games. The players and coaches have said that they feed off of that energy and it may be exactly what they need right now as they enter the weekend just one point ahead of the London Knights for the top seed in the conference.
This weekend, they start a three-game homestand — a rematch with the Greyhounds on Thursday followed by a 2022 OHL Championship rematch with the Hamilton Bulldogs on Saturday night, and the always-tough Owen Sound Attack on Sunday night. The Bulldogs game will be a special night as the club celebrates Superheroes, wearing Thor-inspired jerseys. As of Monday afternoon, the game is 80 percent sold out.
None of these games will be easy and the Spitfires have had issues with each club this season. However, after being on the road for nearly two-straight weekends, some home cooking, family, and friends will be a welcomed sight.
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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.