For two rounds of the playoffs, the Windsor Spitfires have faced opponents trying to find a way to slow the team’s offensive game.
It wasn’t enough to keep the top-seeded Spitfires from moving past the eighth-seeded Sarnia Sting and seventh-seeded Kitchener Rangers and into the Western Conference final.
Now, four wins from the team’s first trip to the OHL championship since 2010, the Spitfires face a team that has the potential to go toe-to-toe with the league’s top-ranked offence in the third-seeded Flint Firebirds. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Saturday at the WFCU Centre at 7:05 p.m. Windsor will also host Game 2 on Monday at 7:05 p.m.
“These guys are offensively gifted and pretty deep up front,” Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard said of the Firebirds, who were fourth in the league in offence.
Of course, like the Sting and Rangers before them, the Firebirds want to play the underdog card.
“I don’t think there’s an edge for us at all here,” Firebirds’ head coach Ted Dent said. “We’re the third seed, we’re coming into the conference final against Windsor and we’re just going to have to play our best hockey against them. They’re a great hockey team as we all know.”
Technically, Flint had the second-best record in the conference, but London was given the second seed as a division winner. Had the Spitfires and Firebirds never met during the regular season, it would have been Flint with the top seed. Windsor, which took 15-of-16 points in eight meetings, finished six-points up for the conference title.
“We’ve played well and earned the top spot,” Savard said. “If we’re the favourite, we’re the favourite. It’s the championship of the west and we’re prepared for it.”
Trying to play the underdog could have the reverse effect. When things go bad, those thoughts of a single shootout win might not inspire much confidence. For the Spitfires, winning seven-of-eight games, the confidence will always be there to comeback, especially after rallying from a deficit in three games against Kitchener to win.
“They’re obviously a good hockey team, they’ve got some good hockey players over there and we’re going to be aware of that,” Firebirds’ captain Brennan Othmann said. “They’ve had our number all year and that’s why they were first in the conference for a reason.
“Playoffs is a different time and our team’s playing really well right now and we’re looking forward to this series.”
To slow the Spitfires, the Firebirds will have to start with Wyatt Johnston, who topped the OHL in scoring and was in on 16 of Windsor’s goals (69.6 per cent) in the Kitchener series.
“Johnston’s an elite player,” Dent said. “Team falls in line after him.
“You can’t really stop guys like that. You can just try to contain them and limit their chances.”
Spitfires’ captain Will Cuylle and Alex Christopoulos were both solid against the Rangers, but the club will need more from its second unit of Matthew Maggio, Daniel D’Amico and Ryan Abraham.
“I’m taking responsibility,” Maggio said. “We have to get going. I think we have more to give than the first two rounds.”
Othmann had 50 goals during the regular season and was one of nine Flint players with at least 15 goals.
“Playoffs is a different time,” Cuylle said. “We know Flint’s probably going to come out a bit harder and so we’re preparing harder and we’re ready for whatever they throw at us.”
Overage goalie Luke Cavallin led the OHL in wins during the regular season and has been solid in the playoffs with a 2.40 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Spitfires’ goalie Matt Onuska’s contributions often get overlooked by the star power on Windsor’s roster, but he has a 2.26 goals-against average in the playoffs and a .910 save percentage and a record of 27-5-2-1 since joining the Spitfires.
“I think we’re all ready and can’t wait to get going,” Johnston said. “It’s good that we’ve had success, but none of that matters now. It’s a best-of-seven series. They’re a different team from what they were in regular seasons.
“We have to come out and play to the best of our ability. We’ve gained a lot of experience and we’re looking to carry that forward.”