WINDSOR, Ont. – When the Windsor fans came out to cheer their hometown Spitfires in the opening game of the Mastercard Memorial Cup on Friday night, their sweaters had the faint whiff of mothballs.
And Windsor coach Rocky Thompson had to take his charges out of the cryogenic chambers and let them thaw before sending them out to skate in the warm-ups.
Okay it only seemed that way, but somehow the Spitfires, having not played a game since April 5, came out strong and held on to beat the Saint John Sea Dogs, who had rolled through the QMJHL with relative ease.
The final score was Windsor 3, St John 2. It could have been more — up 3-0 in the third period, the Spitfires had a few glorious chances to turn the game into a rout. Then again it could have gone to overtime — the Sea Dogs scored a pair in the last three minutes and Matthew Highmore had a wide-open net to tie the game with about a minute to go.
The Spitfires aren’t the first team to host a Memorial Cup after getting knocked out early in their league playoffs but they’re extreme case — they didn’t even make it out of the first round of the OHL playoffs, going down in Game 7 in London, all those many weeks ago.
And they’re not the first to come in and do some expected damage — Shawinigan won the whole thing after sitting on the sidelines for a month in 2012, ditto Ottawa in ’99.
That said, there’s no widely accepted formula for this situation. This is stuff that Hockey Canada doesn’t teach you in the Level 5 coaching program.
Even if Windsor were primed, you’d probably have them as underdogs against Saint John. The Sea Dogs are loaded.
Their most impressive talent is defenceman Thomas Chabot, who was Canada’s, and probably the tournament’s, best player at the world juniors last winter. He’ll be a fixture in the line-up next season with the Ottawa Senators, who drafted him in the first round in 2015.
Saint John also rolls out another shimmering talent on the blue-line, Jakub Zboril, another first-rounder from 2015, selected by Boston.
In mid-season Saint John traded with Val d’Or to pick the man-child power forward Julien Gauthier, who was a first-round draft pick of Carolina last June.
In their time off, you have to suppose that the Spitfires didn’t read reviews of the Sea Dogs.
They stormed out of the blocks, no sign of dust or rust. In the opening minutes, they outshot Saint John 6-1. Big hits trended that way too. When the shots did come later in the period, Windsor’s draft-eligible goaltender Michael DiPietro was equal to them.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that we would have had the great start that we had,” Windsor left winger Jeremy Bracco said. “We had a 44-day layoff but we were flying and really took it to them.”
“We got those nervous jitters out,” Thompson said. “Our plan was to keep it simple. We’re big. We’re strong. We’re good on the cycle. Our conditioning was good. We played a high-tempo game which is what we wanted to do.”
Jeremiah Addison opened the scoring on a power-play goal with four minutes to go in the first — Bracco, a Maple Leafs second-round draft pick two years ago, setup behind the net and hit Addison with a crisp pass that he put by Sea Dogs netminder Callum Booth.
Bracco did it by himself on the 2-0 goal late in the second period. He took off on a two-on-one with Graham Knott but only glanced his way before firing on Booth who made the first save but watched Bracco cash the rebound.
“I just put it on the goalie and I was lucky enough to get a bounce back,” Bracco said.
Windsor looked to have the game in a stranglehold five minutes into the third when Aaron Luchuk beat Booth for a 3-0 lead, tipping a shot by Mikhail Sergachev.
Sergachev, a Montreal first-round pick who did everything but make the Canadiens roster last fall, was a force out there. If you had told neutral observers that the best defenceman at the world juniors was on the ice they would have assumed that you were talking about Sergachev. A couple of times Chabot looked like he was going to boil over, slamming the gate and jawing. You’d presume that after having steamed over speed bumps in the Q playoffs, they weren’t so practiced in dealing with life’s little challenges.
“We got frustrated,” Sea Dogs coach Danny Flynn said. “They were better in a lot of areas than us and they deserved to beat us.”
The Sea Dogs closed out hard. Nathan Noel and Chabot picked up goals late – too late as it turned out.
“We played five minutes of 60 and we almost tied it,” Chabot said.
It was an evening when taking 55 minutes off was more of a problem than being on leave for 44 days.