The Sarnia Sting and Windsor Spitfires won’t need much advanced scouting to prepare for this tilt on Friday Night Hockey as the geographic rivals are set to face each other for the sixth and final time this season.
Each of these team have had to endure injuries and changes to their roster in recent months, but will see a near mirror image in their opposition when the puck drops.
“They’re built like us,” Sarnia head coach and general manager Jacques Beaulieu said. “They have a top line that generates most of the offence with (Alexander) Khokhlachev and (Kerby) Rychel. Same thing with us with Charlie Sarault and Reid Boucher.”
The Sting are still without defenceman Connor Murphy, while forward Alex Galchenyuk won’t return from the NHL as the Montreal Canadiens promised to hold on to their young centre for the remainder of the season.
Like the Sting, the Spitfires were also bit by the injury bug. Top defenceman Slater Koekkeok will miss the remainder of the season after shoulder surgery, while defenceman Patrick Sieloff returns for Friday’s game after missing two weeks of action with a groin injury.
Making matters even more complicated for Windsor is the fact the Spitfires traded former captain Saverio Posa to recoup some of the picks dealt to Peterborough for Koekkoek and consequently their blue line has gotten awfully thin.
“In as many years as I’ve been in the league or coach of this team, we’ve never had this kind of bad luck when it comes to injuries,” Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner said. “We had trouble scoring goals (at the beginning of the season). Some guys were off to slow starts (but) we were getting great goaltending and our defence was OK. After the (trade) deadline, it’s sort of flip-flopped. We’re scoring goals, but we can’t keep them out.”
The Sting are coming off an embarrassing 8-0 loss in Sault Ste. Marie on Wednesday, and Beaulieu is hoping his group uses it as motivation.
“We weren’t sharp right from the start and we got knocked down pretty early, but it’s how you get back up,” he said. “Hopefully, the kids can get back up with some bite and be sharp and stick to the plan. It’s a big game. It’s going to be a spotlight, being on Sportsnet, and everyone will be watching. It’s very important for the kids to play the proper way and play a full 60 minutes.”
The Sting are overcoming the loss of Galchenyuk, in part, due to the exceptional play of team captain Sarault and Boucher. Sarault is second in league scoring with 85 points while Boucher leads the league in goals with 49.
“(Sarault’s) our backbone,” Beaulieu said. “He’s a leader in the room, on the ice, off the ice, very responsible defensively and creates a lot of offence. He’s definitely the key cog of our hockey club. I really hope (an NHL team) gives this guy a contract because he really deserves it.”
“The biggest thing with Reid is last year he had a good year, but this year he came back 20 pounds lighter, got himself in great shape and I think that’s the difference with him,” Beaulieu added in regards to Boucher. “He’s always been a pure goal scorer, but with 20 pounds lighter, a lot stronger, he can get there.”
This summer, the Spitfires were frustrated to learn that Khokhlachev would not return to Windsor at the beginning of the year. The Bruins’ draft pick opted instead to return home and play for Moscow Spartak in the Kontinental Hockey League, but eventually came back to the OHL after the world juniors.
“As much as it hurt us at the beginning of the season, it helps us now,” Boughner said. “I think he’s one of the best, if not the best, offensive players in our league.”
Khokhlachev’s impact can be seen in the re-emergence of Rychel. The son of the GM, Warren Rychel, Kerby scored 41 times a year ago with Khokhlachev on his line. Rychel now has nine of his 32 goals in the new year, after Khokhlachev returned to Windsor.
“Kerby was scoring without Koko, but not at the pace he is now,” Boughner said. “You get a guy like Kerby, he can finish. A guy like Koko, who’s one of the best (passers), hand-in-hand, they’ve been, with Alex Aleardi, our offence for the last month.”
The Sting were watched closely last season by NHL scouts, and should be again next season with Nikolay Goldobin and Anthony DeAngelo entering their draft years. Goldobin brings offence and clutch scoring, as evidenced by his overtime goal on Jan. 1, which ended the London Knights’ 24-game winning streak.
“He’s a pure playmaker,” Beaulieu said of Goldobin. “He has probably one of the best hockey senses I’ve seen in a player in my 15 years of junior. He’s very gifted that way, he’s always a play ahead, he’s got extremely good hands. He reads the play very well — he’s just an all-around good player. As he gets stronger and improves his skating, this guy’s going to be a heck of a junior.”
J.P. Anderson gives the Sting the steady and reliable goaltending a young core needs to improve. His numbers may not do him justice, but the San Jose Sharks’ prospect is, along with Sarault, a backbone to the Sting.
“Sometimes we leave him out to dry with a young team making mistakes,” Beaulieu said. “He’s handled it very well. He’s won some hockey games for us. He gives us a chance to win and he’s banged up a little bit, but he seems to be getting through it and he’s a great kid and low-maintenance hockey player. He does all the things right.”
Spitfires’ starter Jaroslav Pavelka has often given his team a chance to win. The injury-plagued defence, however, has made it difficult for the team to find consistency in their goaltending of late.
“It’s really tough when you come out and five of their first 10 shots are A chances,” Boughner said. “It’s no way to get a goalie feeling good about himself. It’s definitely been tougher for Pav, but at the end of the day, he’s a goalie and he’s our starter and we want him just to make the saves he’s supposed to make and hopefully we play well in front of him and he doesn’t have to have too much work.”
It’s now or never for the Spitfires if they want to be playing playoff hockey. They sit seven points back of eighth-place Saginaw in the Western Conference standings, and play the Spirit on Saturday and Monday. These next three games could determine whether they’re still in the race or playing a meaningless final month of the season.
“There is no sugarcoating it, we had a meeting (Wednesday) as a team and we’re treating (Friday’s game) like Game 1 of the playoffs,” Boughner said. “This weekend is our playoffs.”
The Sting are 12 points up on the Spitfires as the No. 7 seed, so there’s less desperation in their game. However, playoff positioning is still up for grabs, including the coveted home-ice advantage, which isn’t exactly something the Sting view as being overly important.
“We’ve got a better road record than we do a home record,” Beaulieu said. “Sometimes, with a young team, they seem more comfortable on the road than they do at home for some reason. It’s always nice to have home-ice advantage, but I think for us, it’s not the end of the world (if we don’t get it).”