by Manny Paiva follow him on twitter: @paivatheway
Every OHL Western Conference team has to make the trek east once a season. This year’s trip came at a tenuous time for the Windsor Spitfires. Losers of five of their past six games, the Spitfires had to face the Petes, who are going for it all this year, an upstart Frontenacs squad and the 67’s, the best team in the Canadian Hockey League.
Not only did the Spitfires get their groove back to win all three games, it may be the turning point in their season.
Thursday in Peterborough
Knowing the importance of the eastern road swing, the Windsor Spitfires left home on Wednesday and stayed in Peterborough before Thursday’s game. The players didn’t have their regular swagger. Instead, they appeared focused on the task at hand – start the trip on a winning note.
The Spifires scored three goals in 78 seconds in the final two minutes of the first period, and three more in the first seven minutes of the second, thanks in part to a head checking penalty to Petes star Akil Thomas.
That wasn’t the only head shot. A fan sucker punched another fan behind the Petes bench and Windsor Captain Luke Boka took advantage of the distracted Petes players and fans and scored the first of six consecutive goals for the Spitfires.
“I was focused on the play,” said Boka. “I didn’t know what happened in the stands until after the goal.”
The Petes scored three times in the third period but Windsor scored into an empty net and won the game 7-3. Egor Afanasyev finished with a goal and two assists and was named the game’s first star.
It was off to Kingston after the game with an important two points.
Friday in Kingston
The Spitfires did their job and got the win in Peterborough. There was a quiet confidence in the dressing room. But the players and coaches knew a loss in Kingston would nullify the success they enjoyed the night before.
Kingston may be fighting for a playoff spot in the East but 12 of their 17 wins have come on home ice. The Frontenacs also have rookie phenom Shane Wright who is set to break the franchise record for goals by a rookie.
Kingston would score first but the Spitfires responded with two quick goals late in the first period and built their lead in the second. The Frontenacs didn’t stop working. Kingston would tie the game at 5-5 midway through the third period. Spits fans were anxious. Tyler Angle responded. Angle, who is enjoying a breakout season, buried a rebound past Christian Propp for his 25th goal of the season with under five minutes to play. Windsor wins 6-5.
“Big goal,” Angle said after the game.
“We found a way to win,” added coach Trevor Letowski.
Shane Wright was as advertised, finishing with a goal and two assists.
Egor Afanasyev also had a goal and two assists, and was named the game’s first star for the second straight night.
The Spitfires had won two in a row and were heading to Ottawa after the game, knowing the biggest test of the weekend was on Sunday.
Saturday in Ottawa
It was a well deserved off day for the Spitfires after two consecutive victories. But the players still learned a valuable lesson.
The team travelled to Kanata and spent the morning touring the facilities for the NHL Ottawa Senators, hosted by Sens coach and former Spitfire DJ Smith. They also watched the morning skate for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa’s opponent on Saturday night.
Spitfire rookie Wyatt Johnston was impressed by the experience, the dressing room, even the personal chef for the hockey team. But Johnston said Smith’s words to the team hit home.
“He said skill can only get you so far, that you have to work hard and continue to play the right way,” remembers Johnston.
Those words would ring true 24 hours later.
Sunday in Ottawa
The Windsor Spitfires had won two games in a row. But they knew they had unfinished business on the road trip. They had to play the CHL’s top ranked Ottawa 67’s, a team that had lost only twice in their last 31 games.
The players were in a good mood, music blaring on the bus on the way to the rink. A classy move by the coaching staff before puck drop. Ottawa-area boys Pasquale Zito, Kyle McDonald, Chris Playfair and Thomas Stevenson were all on the ice for the opening faceoff as more than 100 family and friends watched from the stands at TD Place.
The Spitfires were outshot 12-3 in the first period but Egor Afanasyev scored his 25th of the season to extend his goal streak to four games. Tyler Angle scored his 26th on the power play in the second. The Spitfires held that 2-0 lead late thanks to strong goaltending by Kari Piiroinen. But the 67’s were pressing and scored two goals with their net empty. The tying marker by Jack Quinn, his 45th of the season, came with 8.6 seconds remaining in the game.
3-on-3 overtime followed. There was not one whistle in the extra frame and no one could score, setting the stage for the shootout.
Only one player scored in the shootout – Windsor’s Will Cuylle – beating Cedrick Andree low on his glove side.
The Spitfires won 3-2 in a shootout. They just knocked off the best team in the country.
I talked to Cuylle afterwards. He, like me, didn’t know the goal was in right away. He finally realized it when his teammates came racing off the bench to congratulate him. Piiroinen celebrated by jumping in the air after making 34 saves in the victory.
Egor Afanasyev finished with a goal and an assist. He was named the game’s first star, again.
“That was a team win,” said Afanasyev in the dressing room after the game.
This was the definition of a team win, holding the most potent offence in the OHL to two goals. Three different goal scorers and terrific team defence and goaltending. Too many blocked shots to count, led by the Captain Luke Boka. He blocked four shots during one shift on the penalty kill. Ottawa finished 0-for-5 on the power play.
It was exactly the script painted by DJ Smith only 24 hours earlier, and one that has been delivered by coaches Trevor Letowski, Jerrod Smith and Mike Weber all season.
Skill will only get you so far. You have to work hard and play the right way.
“It’s a tough trip, especially this year with Peterborough and Ottawa having the seasons they’re having. So to come home with six points is huge,” said Letowski on the bus trip home. “Hopefully we can use the momentum we’ve built to finish the season strong.”
The Windsor Spitfires now have a record of 32-15-5. 17 of their wins have come on the road. They have 69 points. That would put them in second place in the Eastern Conference. But the Spitfires sit in 5th place in the West. Windsor is one point behind red-hot Flint and three points behind Saginaw with games in hand on both the Firebirds and Spirit.
If the Spitfires continue their winning ways down the stretch, they will look at this eastern road swing as the turning point in the season. A trip that stopped their tailspin and allowed the Spitfires to soar.