I was pretty cautious in offering my prediction on the OHL final on Wednesday. However, the Windsor Spitfires pretty much threw my caution to the wind with a 10-1 victory over the Brampton Battalion in Game 1.
It wasn’t a fight. It was a swarming.
I called for a close series. Maybe it will turn out that way.
One lop-sided game isn’t everything.
But it’s certainly something.
The Spitfires have played progressively better in these playoffs. Wednesday night they won at their leisure against a Brampton team that looked like it left its game behind in the conference final win over Belleville.
The conventional wisdom was that Thomas McCollum would have to give the Battalion a big game for Brampton to have a chance to steal a game in Windsor. With his future bosses – Ken Holland, Jim Nill and the rest of the crew from the Detroit Red Wings – crossing the river to see him, McCollum shouldn’t have lacked for motivation. He flat-lined before being pulled. Then again, he was hardly alone. It was a collective collapse. The exclamation point: with the game already out of hand by the second intermission, Brampton managed one shot on goal in the last 20 minutes.
Previewing the series, I said that Windsor played bigger than Brampton. Well, the Spitfires towered over and over-powered the Battalion. Shift after shift went by without the Battalion players winning a battle along the boards. When Brampton coach Stan Butler said that some his players should “have had to have bought tickets to get into the game,” well, that’s presuming that they would have had enough fight to make it through the crowd on the concourse level. Given their play, that was no sure thing.
A little more than a year ago Windsor bowed out in a short first-round series against an underdog Sarnia team that had Steve Stamkos and not a heck of a lot else. The Spitfires misfortune was to run into the best player in the league at the absolute top of his game; no game is won single-handedly and certainly not a best-of-seven series, but last year the Sting’s win over Windsor was about as close at it comes.
The Windsor players back from that team obviously learned a thing or two along the way.
Coming into the OHL final it seemed like the Battalion had three guns instead of just one, but with no bullets it hardly mattered. Cody Hodgson could do a pretty passable impression of Stamkos this season – same sort of offensive talent, same attention to play without the puck and back-checking, maybe a step down on skating but anybody would be. And Matt Duchene and Evgeni Grachev offered more talent to complement Hodgson than Stamkos had.
But this is a better Windsor team, a year older, enriched with acquisitions in trade. One measure: Taylor Hall is a candidate to be the first overall pick in next year’s draft but the Spitfires would have romped without him last night. Yeah, Hall picked up a goal and two assists and was a plus-3. You could say the same about the league’s top defenceman Ryan Ellis, who picked up a couple of assists, put in his usual game back at the point but wasn’t a defining player by any stretch.
Last year the Spitfires had defenceman Marek Biro and goaltender Jakub Kovar as their imports. There’s just one in the Windsor line-up this trip but he’s more than the sum of that pair. In the first period Andrei Loktionov set the template for all action to come. His pair of first period goals showed off a great pair of hands and a high hockey IQ – he must have taken it to heart that I labelled him the second best Russian in the OHL. I suspect that Brampton’s Grachev will have a better NHL career than the slight-ish Loktionov. No matter, Loktionov lapped him last night.
Last year Windsor’s over-agers were defenceman Elgin Reid and forward Matthew Bragg, decent workers both but not game-changers. This year’s OA’s have a much bigger impact: goaltender Andrew Engleage who, for the knocks against him, still led the OHL in wins; defenceman Ben Shutron who brought Memorial Cup experience with him when he came over from Kitchener in January; and another defenceman Rob Kwiet, who offers beef that Brampton seems to lack. Another upgrade.
Putting together your best six Windsor forwards you’d opt for Hall (38 goals in 55 regular-season games), Calgary first-rounder Greg Nemisz (36 in 65), Scott Timmins (35 in 66 games split between Kitchener and Windsor) Toronto draftee Dale Mitchell (33 in 66), Adam Henrique (30 in 56) and Loktionov (24 in 51). Well, in Wednesday night’s rout the support players provided the final six goals. Justin Shugg, a third-liner, picked up a hat trick. You could make a case that Eric Wellwood would crack the top six, not just on the goal he scored last night but on his play right through the postseason. Lane MacDermid and Conor O’Donnell aren’t names that you think of when fans start talking about the CHL’s top-ranked teams but they chipped in with goals as well. MacDermid tied with defenceman Harry Young with a team-high plus-4 last night.
The most impressive aspect of this edition of the Spitfires is depth. They came at the Battalion in waves last night. True, maybe those who are the supporting players for the star-laden Spitfires received more than their usual ice time in the second and third periods of a one-sided game, but still, they showed a lot more game than their counterparts on the Battalion.
It’s too early to write off the Battalion. One rout does not a series make. But the Spitfires have a groove on. But for the final to go even five games it will take a complete reversal of form for McCollum, for the Brampton troika of Hodgson, Duchene and Grachev, for the Battalion’s depth players who showed nothing last night. One shot in the third period … hard to imagine that a team that lands in the final could just go through the motions in a showcase game.