Redemption Song: Spitfires aim to change last chapter
History is always waiting for a new chapter to be written.
The Windsor Spitfires will take those words to heart as the club prepares to host the 99th Mastercard Memorial Cup.
The Spitfires will need an historical performance to win the championship. The team is coming off a six-week layoff after a first-round OHL playoff exit and no team, in the history of the Mastercard Memorial Cup, has captured the trophy after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t think we think of it as an impossible task at all,” Spitfires veteran centre Aaron Luchuk said. “We have a really good team and we lost in seven games to a really good team.”
Windsor already made a little history in the OHL playoffs. The Spitfires were the league’s first team to not have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs after recording 90 points during the regular season. In a tough Western Conference where five teams were in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10, the Spitfires drew the defending Mastercard Memorial Cup champion London Knights in the first round and lost in seven games.
“We have a good team in our room still and we’ll try to seize this opportunity,” Spitfires’ second-year goalie Mikey DiPietro said. “It’s just a different path to take to the Memorial Cup.”
The Spitfires made history at the 2009 MasterCard Memorial Cup. The OHL champion Spitfires lost the first two games of the tournament and no team had ever comeback through the tiebreaker to win the title under that scenario, but then head coach Bob Boughner remained calm.
“We have that ability to go on a run,” Boughner, now an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, said at the time.
Four-straight wins, including an overtime thriller in the semifinal, and the franchise hoisted the trophy for the first time ever. It’s not the first time the club has defied the odds. Back in 2005, the seventh-seeded Spitfires lost the first three games in the first round of a best-of-seven series against second-seeded Sault Ste. Marie.
No team in OHL history had ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a series being the road team in Game 7.
“Somebody has to do it,” then Spitfires head coach Dave Prpich said before Game 4. “Why not us?’
The Spitfires took the next four games, including a double-overtime win in Game 7, to take their place in OHL history and now this year’s squad will again try to defy the odds.
In 2013, the host Saskatoon Blades lost in the first round of the WHL and lost in the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game to London.
In 2001, the Regina Pats lost in the first round as well and reached the Mastercard Memorial Cup semifinal, but lost to Val-d’Or. Now, Windsor will try to take the last step.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity and we’re confident in our ability,” DiPietro said.
One thing Windsor expects to have is a healthy lineup when the Mastercard Memorial Cup opens, after long stretches with key contributors out of action.
“It would, potentially, be the first time all year we’ve had a healthy team,” said Luchuk, whose team lost 138 man games to injury in the regular season. “That could be a great advantage for us.”
Six-foot-seven, 231-pound defenceman Logan Stanley, who was a first-round pick of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets in 2016, missed the final 26 games of the regular season and the playoffs after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 23 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, but expects to be back for the Memorial Cup.
Stanley is one of four defencemen on the Spitfires already signed to NHL deals along with Mikhail Sergachev (Montreal Canadiens), Jalen Chatfield (Vancouver Canucks) and Sean Day (New York Rangers).
“He’s a leader on our team,” Spitfires head coach Rocky Thompson said of Stanley. “He’s a dominant player in this league. You combine those two things together and it’s a big piece for our guys. He’s a man that plays over 25 minutes a night. He might be the best defending defenceman in this league, who has offensive upside.”
His return would make life easier for DiPietro. The OHL’s F.W. ‘Dinty’ Moore Trophy winner for lowest goals-against average as a rookie had no letdown in his sophomore season.
DiPietro’s 2.35 goals-against average was second in the league and tied the club record set by Andrew Engelage in 2008-09. He was also third in the league with a .917 save percentage while his six shutouts tied for the league lead and set a modern-era club record.
“I was really happy with the way I played,” said DiPietro, who is eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft. “From a personal standpoint, I felt I was consistent with my effort.”
Aside from four signed players on defence, the Spitfires also have five signed NHL prospects at forward in Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators), Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jeremiah Addison (Canadiens), Graham Knott (Chicago Blackhawks) and Julius Nattinen (Anaheim Ducks). Gabriel Vilardi is expected to be a lottery selection in June’s NHL Draft while Luchuk’s 28 goals were just one behind Vilardi for the team lead in the regular season.
“Top to bottom, there’s a lot of talent there,” DiPietro said. “I’m honoured to play on a team with that much skill.”
While six weeks is a long time to wait for the tournament, Thompson believes there are some advantages for his team having the time off and his job is to make sure to maximize them.
“I don’t focus on those things that are negative,” Thompson said. “All I can do is focus on what we can do as a staff to prepare our players to have success.
“What we’re going to have as an advantage is we’re going to be healthy for the first time all year. Other teams are going to be broken down over the course of the playoffs. We’ll be fresh. We’ll be energized. Will we be rusty? One hundred per cent, it’s six weeks in between games. There will be some advantages that the other team will have, but if we can focus on the things we can do to overcome those disadvantages, then we can capitalize on the advantages we will have.
“We’ll have our fans here. We’ll be able to sleep in our own beds. Things that are our routine will be able to stay the same, so it’s a huge advantage.”
JIM PARKER COVERS THE SPITFIRES FOR THE WINDSOR STAR.