By: Bryan Thiel
On Sunday night the Canadian Hockey League season wrapped up in dramatic fashion.
The Ontario Hockey League champion Erie Otters and the host Windsor Spitfires were the last two teams standing in the hunt for the MasterCard Memorial Cup. It was the sixth time that the two had met this year, with four of those matchups coming in the OHL’s regular season, and the fifth deciding which of the two would get a bye to the final game.
While there was little doubt after two periods who would come away with that first matchup (Windsor led 3-0 after two), the teams traded goals throughout, entering the third tied 3-3 before Aaron Luchuk scored the clincher five minutes into the final frame.
After the final buzzer, emotions poured out and story-lines started to emerge. There was the obvious elation of the home-town team, bounced after seven hard-fought, first round games in their league’s playoffs redeeming themselves. There was disappointment for the Erie Otters, who surrounded the graduating Dylan Strome, their captain, as the Spitfires celebrated their championship in a heartfelt moment. The Otters also dealt with the ugliness of an emotional, stick-throwing outburst from goaltender Troy Timpano.
And then there was…a conversation.
Sparked on Twitter, the question was posed a few different ways, but always settled on the same core issue: Are the Windsor Spitfires, 2017 Memorial Cup champions, deserving of their title? After all, this was a team that finished fifth overall in their league (and conference), a full nine points out of fourth place and ten away from winning their division. They hadn’t played hockey since a Game 7 loss against the London Knights on April 4th, a 44-day layoff before May 19th’s tournament opener against the Saint John Sea Dogs.
It’s a question we’ll try to answer.
The Case against the Spitfires:
The bulk of this has been outlined already: Windsor was the rare Memorial Cup host that, not only couldn’t secure a top-two seed in the OHL, but couldn’t even earn home ice in a single round of their league’s playoffs. Despite that, they were still talented enough to build a 3-1 series lead over the London Knights in round one of the playoffs, but watched it evaporate as London won the final three games 2-1, 5-3, and 3-2.
That comeback by the Knights led to Windsor’s 44-day layoff, which allowed them a luxury that no other team in the MasterCard Memorial Cup received: health.
While other teams would deal with their bumps and bruises over the course of long playoff runs, not only did the Spitfires heal up from their abbreviated playoffs, but they actually added a player: the towering Logan Stanley. Stanley had been MIA since January because of a knee injury, and could have been the difference in that series with London. Instead of being parachuted into a hectic playoff run and forced to find his feet, Stanley was able to build up his stamina alongside his teammates thanks to intense conditioning work from head coach Rocky Thompson.
Overall, Windsor was never an overly dominant team. They featured a ton of talent that included two of the top draft eligibles from this year in forward Gabe Vilardi and goaltender Michael DiPietro, but only had one player land among the top 15 in scoring (deadline acquisition Jeremy Bracco) and three among the top 50 (Bracco, Vilardi, and Sunday’s hero Aaron Luchuk).
DiPietro was spectacular, with the second-lowest goals-against average and third-best save percentage among goalies with 30 or more games played, but the Spitfires never really went for a ‘run’. Each of Erie, Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie pieced together multiple winning streaks of six or more games. The Spitfires never won more than five in a row (Which for the purposes of this argument is classified as unimpressive).
While they escaped from the Memorial Cup with a title and a banner to add to the rafters, Windsor benefited from the rest, getting healthy and getting Stanley back. They are the quintessential ‘get hot at the right time’ team, as their 7-10-3 record against the top four in the Western Conference during the regular season proves.
While they are Memorial Cup Champions, they stole the title away from Erie, Saint John, and the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The Case for the Spitfires:
Stuck in a dominant Western Conference, the Windsor Spitfires were not just a top-five team in the West, but a top-five team in the OHL. They finished a point ahead of the first-place Peterborough Petes, five points ahead of the Oshawa Generals, and nine points beyond the Eastern Conference champion Mississauga Steelheads.
While they iced the tenth-best offence in the league with 232 goals-for, their defence was rock solid, allowing just 185 goals-against (the third-fewest in the league). Their offensive numbers (and likely their place in the standings) could have been drastically different if Gabe Vilardi hadn’t been sidelined by a random assortment of injuries, while their defensive prowess was underscored by the fact they got just 35 games out of Logan Stanley.
While their regular season record against the top four in their conference is poor (7-10-3), the OHL featured an unrivaled level of skill. Five western conference teams finished with 90 or more points, which is the same as the entire QMJHL had, but also four fewer than the 22-team WHL housed. That parity was on display in round one against the Knights, where four games were decided by one goal; a number that would have been as high as six if it wasn’t for empty-netters.
It was that first round series that inspired a media-wide conversation about re-formatting the OHL’s playoff system. The fact that conversation was even necessary is proof that Windsor was better than a 4/5 matchup with a 99 point team.
Here’s how Windsor’s playoff chances could have broken down in a variety of playoff scenarios:
Situation A) All teams that qualify for the playoffs are ranked by point totals. Erie would have finished first, and Windsor would have finished fifth. The Spitfires would have played the Flint Firebirds.
Situation B) First overall seed in each conference claim first and second seeds and the following teams are ranked by point totals: Erie would have finished first with 103 points and Peterborough second. Windsor would have finished sixth in this situation and had home ice against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Situation C) Division winners claim the top four seeds and the remaining 12 teams are ranked by point totals: The Top four would have consisted of Erie, Sault Ste. Marie, Peterborough and Mississauga. Windsor would have finished seventh in this situation and had home ice against the Kingston Frontenacs.
In any of those three situations, it’s difficult to see Windsor losing in the first round. The stigma of being a Memorial Cup participant/host that was ousted in the early rounds would have been lost, and the result of the 2017 playoffs would be drastically different.
With the way things shook out, the Spits were still a subject of the ‘rest vs. rust’ conversation. Head coach Rocky Thompson did a spectacular job keeping his team focused and in game shape over their 44-day break, finishing the round robin portion of the tournament with a 3-0 record.
Even if they had lost the final against Erie, their preparation and conditioning deserves recognition.
Windsor was in an unenviable position all season long. With the London Knights primed for a Memorial Cup repeat, Michael McNiven and Nick Suzuki leading Owen Sound to the top of the conference, the Greyhounds keeping them at arm’s length and the Erie Otters going from an off-season question mark to regular season powerhouse, Windsor still found a way to put together a great season.
Adding in timely acquisitions like Sean Day and Jeremy Bracco, the Spitfires were simply the victims of a stacked playoff picture and deserved a second chance to prove how good they were; a second chance they capitalized on.
There have been complaints about the validity of having the host team as one of the four competing for the Memorial Cup, but if you remove the automatic entry from the process, what are you left with? You can have a three team or six team tournament (with all six league finalists), or you can have the same neutral site host the tournament each year and figure out a formula for a fourth team.
Why a neutral site? Because there’s no point of rotating the tournament around without a host team. Fans will travel, but it’s also hard to drum up interest if there’s no local draw. Imagine if Hamilton or Oshawa won their bids for next year’s tournaments. Now try to imagine the crowds for a week’s worth of games that don’t feature a single appearance by the Generals or Bulldogs.
Whether you like it or not, the Windsor Spitfires are the 2017 Memorial Cup champions. Even when they were bounced in the first round they kept their composure away from the game and their coaching staff did a masterful job keeping them in shape and focused.
The OHL, WHL and QMJHL champions all had a chance to knock them off and couldn’t get it done.
Bryan Thiel is a freelance broadcaster who has covered the OHL from rink-side and the broadcast booth. He has also helped produce OHL features for the past four seasons. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanThiel_88.