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The Windsor Spitfires delivered on their promise.
All week, leading up to the start of the 99th MasterCard Memorial Cup, the team’s players insisted they were ready and anxious to play a meaningful hockey game after more than six weeks on the sidelines after a first-round playoff exit.
Sixty minutes of hockey on Friday ended that six weeks of frustration, with the Spitfires opening the tournament with a 3-2 win over the Saint John Sea Dogs, who won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title, before 5,926 the WFCU Centre.
“It was a heartbreaking defeat for us against the London Knights,” Spitfires head coach Rocky Thompson said of their early exit from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. “It was a great learning experience for our group. It’s made me a better coach. I know it’s made us a better team. We’re still alive here. We’re competing against the best and we want to prove that we are one of the best as well.”
Windsor showed little of the playoff rust early against the Sea Dogs, with the top line of Logan Brown, Jeremy Bracco and Graham Knott each having a quality scoring chance early along with defenceman Jalen Chatfield.
Windsor finally broke through with its second power play of the game as Bracco fed Jeremiah Addison, who went high to beat Sea Dogs goalie Callum Booth to put the Spitfires up 1-0 after 20 minutes in a period where they held a 9-6 edge in shots.
The early lead was a confidence builder for a Windsor squad that came in as the underdog as the only team in the tournament without a title on its resume.
“We are the underdog team,” Spitfires forward Gabriel Vilardi said. “We lost in the first round. This Western Conference (in the OHL) is so good and I don’t think that’s what people realize.
“Any of those top five teams in the Western Conference could have ended up being champs of the league.
“We’re a great hockey team and we just need to show everyone else what we’re capable of.”
Saint John pushed back in the second period, but could not beat Spitfires goalie Mikey DiPietro. Bracco gave Windsor some breathing room by putting home his own rebound in the final two minutes of the period to put the Spitfires up 2-0 after 40 minutes.
Saint John was second in the QMJHL in offence with an average of 4.22 goals per game, but could not generate anything offensively for the first 56 minutes and Sea Dogs head coach Danny Flynn, who has coached at six Memorial Cups, knows there is a danger trying to gear back up after winning a title.
“You go through the high of winning your league, four tough rounds in eight weeks and then you have to refocus in a tournament against teams you don’t really know,” Flynn said. “The teams are better, the stakes are higher (and) you have to play better.
“To press the reset button, park the league championship and come back with your edge is one of the big challenges coaches have.”
Flynn used his timeout early in the third period after Aaron Luchuk redirected a shot from Mikhail Sergachev past Booth to put the Spitfires up 3-0.
But the Spitfires remained disciplined own the stretch by dumping pucks in and forcing the Sea Dogs to constantly reset and regroup.
A late power-play chance allowed the Sea Dogs to get on the board on a goal by Nathan Noel, and then Thomas Chabot made it a one-goal game 24 seconds later.
Despite some anxious moments, the Spitfires were able to hold off the Sea Dogs. The win also assures the Spitfires that the club will, at no worse, play beyond the round robin portion of the tournament with a win guaranteeing the team at least a spot in Thursday’s tiebreaker game.
Austin McEneny, left, Jeremy Bracco and Graham Knott of the Spitfires celebrate Bracco’s goal against the Saint John Sea Dogs during Game 1 of the Memorial Cup Tournament Friday night at the WFCU Centre. The Spitfires won the game 3-2.