WINDSOR — Graham Knott saw Jeremy Bracco’s wrist-shot fly past him — Knott didn’t feel it, but the puck did hit him on the shoulder on its way by — and then he heard someone yell.
The next thing Knott knew, the puck was in the net, he had his second goal of the night, and his Windsor Spitfires were up 5-1 en route to an eventual 7-1 drubbing of the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds, and a second straight win here at the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
And Knott’s second goal of the night? It actually went in off the face of Thunderbirds defenceman Aaron Hyman. So it was Hyman who yelled.
“A lucky goal,” as Knott, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect, put it. And it fit, really, because it was that kind of night for the now 0-2 Thunderbirds: Nothing went right. And it was that kind of night for the now 2-0 Spitfires, the first team to two wins here: Everything went their way.
“I can say that’s a first that I’ve had a bounce like that happen,” said a grinning Bracco, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect who added a goal later in the third. “I’ve seen them on TV and I’ve always wanted one, and I finally got one.”
The Spitfires got plenty of good bounces, in fact, in large part because they forced them: Their first four goals came off turnovers thanks to a relentless forecheck.
Julius Nattinen had two goals, Windsor scored three in 38 seconds, Logan Brown had three points, Spitfires goalie Michael DiPietro made 24 saves and the hosts from Windsor — the champions of nothing this season, compared to the other three teams here who each won their leagues — have guaranteed themselves a berth in the semi-final at worst. A win against Erie in their final round-robin game earns Windsor a trip straight to next Sunday’s final.
The WHL champions, on the other hand, are now 0-2 and their tournament is on life support. They need a win to stay alive here. As head coach Steve Konowalchuk put it of the final tally on the scoreboard: “It’s not what you like to see.”
For all the talk about the rust that must have settled on a Windsor team that hadn’t played for 44 days following a first-round exit in the OHL playoffs, it was the Spitfires who came out of the gate on fire here Sunday.
Starting at the 4:48 mark of the first period, Windsor scored on three straight shots in a 38-second span to take a 3-0 lead, chasing Seattle’s rookie goalie Carl Stankowski from the net, one night after he was his team’s best player in a loss against Erie.
The three-goal onslaught ties a Memorial Cup record for fastest three goals scored in tournament history, set back in 1978.
It was Knott who struck first. The winger found himself virtually alone in front, and got a pass from Brown, which he one-timed in close over Stankowski’s glove, bringing the fans at WFCU Centre to their feet.
Knott skated by his bench for fist-bumps and yelled, “Let’s go boys!” And go they did.
Twenty-one seconds later, Nattinen, a Finnish-born Anaheim prospect, made it 2-0 with his first of the tournament, a one-timer from the slot that went in off Stankowski’s glove. The play started thanks to the top draft-eligible player here, Gabriel Vilardi — he’s expected to go top-five in June’s NHL Draft — who stripped the puck from Thunderbirds defenceman Ethan Bear behind the net, then hit Nattinen in front.
Then 17 seconds after that, Brown slid one through Stankowski’s legs, and the 17-year-old’s night was over: Three goals on six shots. In came 20-year-old Rylan Toth, who was injured in the regular season, and hadn’t played a game since March.
It took Seattle 11:23 to register a shot on DiPietro, and he saw just three in the first period.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Stay engaged in the game, and [don’t] lose your focus.’ Because if you lose your focus, it just puts your team at a detriment,” said DiPietro, who was outstanding on Sunday. “We had such a great start, I didn’t wanna put anyone back.”
He sure didn’t, but the save of the night didn’t come from him. It was Spitfires defenceman Jalen Chatfield who came up with that one in the second period, when he dove head-first across the crease on a 5-on-3 power-play and stopped Ryan Gropp from scoring on a wide open net.
“We always joke in the room, Chatty’s like a third goalie coach on the team,” said DiPietro. “It was a big block — that’s sacrificing your body, it shows right there, going head first for that puck.”
Gropp’s shot hit Chatfield on the hand, but he swears it didn’t hurt, not even a little.
“No, no, adrenaline was going, the fans were great, so I didn’t feel it at all,” he said.
And the big save was an improvement on Chatfield’s big moment In Game 1, when he threw up in a Gatorade bucket in the penalty box, on account of a stomach bug.
“I feel better now,” Chatfield said, grinning.
Seconds after that big save, Blue Jackets prospect Keegan Kolesar had a good look, but DiPietro zipped across the crease and made a save with his shoulder. Kolesar smacked his stick on the ice in frustration, and that pretty much sums up Seattle’s night. Despite plenty of chances, despite outshooting Windsor in the second and third periods, the Thunderbirds went 0-for-4 on the power play, and only managed to beat DiPietro once.
It was Kolesar who struck for Seattle, later in the second. The winger jumped on a rebound in front off a point shot and slid the puck through DiPietro’s legs. The Thunderbirds had woken up, and it was 3-1. They had life again, but only for a little while.
Windsor got its three-goal lead back before the end of the second, again on a turnover. On the Spitfires power play, Toth tried to put the puck along the boards behind the net, but it was cut off by captain Jeremiah Addison. He spotted a wide open Nattinen in front, and Anaheim’s second-round pick hammered the puck in the wide-open net to make it 4-1.
Addison later scored with a top corner wrist shot to make it 6-1, then skated up the boards, smiling, and calmly waving to the crowd.
The top line of Bracco, Brown and Knott struck again for the last goal of the game when Knott threaded a perfect pass through the crease to an open Bracco, who wristed it home.
It had been 10 years since a host team here at the Memorial Cup started 2-0. Windsor might’ve been cast as the underdogs ahead of this tournament, but not by anyone in that Spitfires dressing room, and definitely not now among a group with “growing confidence,” as head coach Rocky Thompson put it.
Bracco sure never thought of this team as a non-favourite here.
“I think a lot of people with cameras and microphones did,” he said.
“I don’t know what other people think about us,” added Nattinen, “but we know we have a very good team and we have very good players.
“I think we can win.”