If the Windsor Spitfires were a year ahead of schedule in their rebuild last season then this year’s Ontario Hockey League championship is a sign of things to come. The Spitfires had a target on their back all season long after enjoying a 51-point turnaround a year ago. Windsor finished first overall with 115 points, the highest in franchise history and won their second league championship.
While many expected the Spitfires to finish first and win their league, the mere fact they did is impressive given their youth and high expectations. Windsor hadn’t won a playoff series their three previous years while the team had never reached the final since winning in 1988.
Windsor proved to be quick learners as the core of their group were mostly young and inexperienced in the playoffs. Defenceman Ryan Ellis and forward Taylor Hall became the faces of the franchise last season in their rookie year and have not disappointed. The team added veteran leadership in a deadline deal to acquire forward Scott Timmins, defenceman Ben Shutron and goaltender Josh Unice, all of whom had won the league title last season with the Kitchener Rangers.
The move for veteran leadership helped solidify their chances this season. The team received balanced scoring in the playoffs, as evidenced by Eric Wellwood’s two overtime goals in the series against the London Knights. After beating the Knights, a series many predicted would determine the Western Conference crown from the outset, the Spitfires became a near impossible force in their series with Brampton. Windsor made quick work of the Battalion in the league championship series with Hall providing the heroics in overtime in Game 5.
Strengths: Windsor’s biggest strength is their offence. The Spitfires are loaded with top-end talent and have the depth to score from any line. Nine players scored double-digits in points through their playoff run, with Hall, the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs, leading the way with 36 points in 20 games. Hall is a dynamic scorer with a hard and accurate wrist shot. His speed and vision of the offensive zone are two weapons he uses to create chances.
Ellis, a potential top 10 pick this summer, has one of the hardest slapshots in junior hockey. What Ellis loses in size he makes up for with his hockey sense. If he were a few inches taller, he would contend for a top three selection in this year’s draft as his game just keeps getting better. His defensively play is sound and he has a penchant for jumping up and catching on-rushing forwards with their head down, just as he did Brampton’s Matt Kang in the final.
Russian forward Andrei Loktionov is another gifted offensive threat. Loktionov is silky smooth in the offensive zone and is dangerous from the half-boards. Dale Mitchell and Greg Nemisz provide a physical element with a soft touch around the net.
Windsor is also defensively reliable from the forward position with players such as Timmins, Adam Henrique and the gritty Lane MacDermid. Their team is well-rounded with solid role players.
Weaknesses: The biggest concern the Spitfires may have is in goal with Andrew Engelage. While he takes up a lot of net at six-foot-five and 206 pounds, he’s very reliant on his butterfly, which opens the top half of the net. The London Knights exploited this in their series by scoring several goals by shooting high on Engelage. Opposing teams have also found success on second-chance opportunities as Engelage isn’t always able to quickly move side-to-side.
Backup Unice has Memorial Cup experience with the Rangers a year ago but he was unimpressive in the tournament and will be used more as insurance. Engelage performed very well in the finals against the Battalion, which will help from a confidence standpoint. The Spitfires will need to continue giving their goaltender help by clearing his rebounds if they’re going to be successful in this tournament.
Keys to victory: The Spitfires love riding momentum and have the ability to bury a team quickly when their offence is clicking. Windsor receives a huge boost in confidence when things begin going their way, no matter the score. Once their foot is on the gas pedal, it’s hard to slow them down.
A strong defensive effort will be needed for the Spitfires in the tournament. Their defensive play was fairly strong this season but will be tested against the elite teams from each league. London gave them their biggest test defensively and the Spitfires emerged but in large part due to their offensive firepower. Although the Spitfires would do well by not engaging in a high-scoring game, they have the talent to succeed in a wide-open affair.
Noteworthy: Head coach Bob Boughner was the league’s coach of the year the last two seasons. … General manager Warren Rychel was the league’s executive of the year this season. … Windsor once hosted the Memorial Cup, in 1980, but did not play in the tournament as hosts then were not given automatic entry. … The Spitfires were runners-up to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 1988 Memorial Cup, their only previous appearance in the tournament. … Windsor finished second in the CHL’s Mosaik MasterCard Top 10 rankings at the end of this season. The Spitfires were ranked first 20 of the 27 weeks. … The last OHL team to win the Memorial Cup was in 2005 when the London Knights defeated the Rimouski Océanic. … The last OHL team to win the Memorial Cup when it was hosted by the QMJHL was the Kitchener Rangers in 2003. That tournament was hosted in Québec City, Que. … 12 teams from the OHL/Ontario Hockey Association won the Memorial Cup since 1972 when the tournament format originally included all three leagues.
NHL Drafted Spitfires: Ben Shutron, 4th round in 2006 (Chicago Blackhawks); Dale Mitchell, 3rd round in 2007 (Toronto Maple Leafs); Josh Unice, 3rd round in 2007 (Chicago Blackhawks); Richard Greenop, 6th round in 2007 (Chicago Blackhawks); Greg Nemisz, 1st round in 2008 (Calgary Flames); Adam Henrique, 3rd round in 2008 (New Jersey Devils); Andrei Loktionov, 5th round in 2008 (Los Angeles Kings); Harry Young, 7th round in 2008 (New Jersey Devils).
2009 NHL Draft Eligible players: Ryan Ellis, D; Jesse Blacker, D; Ben Dubois, C; Ron Soucie, D.
Regular season record: 57-10-0-1 (115 points)
League regular season ranking: First overall, first in Western Conference
Combined regular season and playoff road record: 33-9-0-1
Regular season goal differential: 311-171
Playoff goal differential: 102-59
Playoff record: 16-4
Memorial Cup appearances: One (1988)
Memorial Cup championships: None
League championships: Two (1988 and 2009)
Spitfires’ Memorial Cup schedule:
Windsor vs. Drummondville, Saturday, May 16 – 4:30 p.m. EST / 1:30 p.m. PST
Windsor vs. Rimouski, Sunday, May 17 – 4:30 p.m. EST / 1:30 p.m. PST
Windsor vs. Kelowna, Tuesday, May 19 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Tie-breaker (if necessary), teams TBD, Thursday, May 21 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Semifinal, teams TBD, May 22 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Final, teams TBD, May 24 – 4:30 p.m. EST / 1:30 p.m. PST