Despite a disappointing end to their OHL playoff existence six weeks ago, the Windsor Spitfires stuck to the plan and reaped the dividends on Friday at the WFCU Centre, opening the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup with a 3-2 win over the QMJHL Champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
The win wasn’t without it’s anxious moments as Saint John scored twice inside the final four minutes of the third period to cut their deficit to one.
Windsor battled hard in the game’s final shifts, coming up with some key shot blocks to preserve the victory and win their ninth consecutive Mastercard Memorial Cup game as a franchise dating back to 2009.
“I’m extremely proud of our group,” said head coach Rocky Thompson post-game. “Our guys settled in nicely, managed pucks and kept things simple.
“I think our conditioning was really good and that’s been a big focus of ours. We want to put the gas to the floor, take advantage of those TV timeouts and play a high-tempo game.”
The two sides came out hitting in the opening shifts, playing off the energy inside the WFCU Centre as the Spitfires controlled the flow early.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Callum Booth was forced into some early saves in goal for the Sea Dogs as Windsor took the shooting column 6-1 in the opening seven minutes of action.
Draft eligible Windsor goaltender Michael DiPietro provided some highlight reel material of his own, denying Sea Dogs captain Spencer Smallman of a goal with a sprawling glove save just beyond the 15-minute mark.
With an intense physical pace came power plays as the officials looked to rein things in. Windsor took advantage as Jeremiah Addison converted to give the home club a 1-0 lead late in the first.
Forwards Aaron Luchuk and Jeremy Bracco outmanned Saint John down low with the man advantage as Bracco centered for Addison who beat Booth over the shoulder with a quick release with 4:07 remaining.
After just under 18 minutes of scoreless second period action, Bracco brought the WFCU Centre to its feet as he fought off a defender to bury his own rebound and give the Spitfires a 2-0 lead.
Windsor kept clicking early in the third as the hard-working line of Aaron Luchuk, Adam Laishram and Luke Boka controlled the play along the boards before the puck got to the point for a Mikhail Sergachev wrister. Luchuk skated through the goalmouth, tipping the release past Booth 4:48 into the third to put the Spitfires ahead 3-0.
Saint John put forth a valiant comeback effort as Chicago Blackhawks prospect Nathan Noel beat DiPietro from the high slot with 3:10 remaining before star defenceman Thomas Chabot sent a shot into the back of the net through traffic just 24 seconds later.
With a hush over the WFCU Centre, the Sea Dogs missed two golden chances to tie the score as leading scorer Matthew Highmore missed an open net from close quarters and veteran winger Mathieu Joseph hit a goal post.
Though they were outshot 9-4 in the third period, the Spits hung on for the win before a crowd of 5,926.
“It was great to get back out in front of the Spitfires fans,” said co-captain Jeremiah Addison after the win. “To hear the crowd again and feel that energy is pretty great. They were really behind us right from the drop of the puck.”
The Sea Dogs open their tournament schedule with a one-goal loss, but veteran head coach Danny Flynn cut straight to the chase in his post-game analysis.
“We didn’t play very well to be honest with you,” he said. “We knew they’d come with an edge because they wanted to prove they deserve to be in this tournament and they did a great job hemming us in.
“We had a push for the last five minutes, but other than that we have to be way better than that if we want to compete in this tournament.”
The Sea Dogs will have two days off to prepare for the Erie Otters on Monday while the Spitfires are back at it on Sunday, taking on the WHL Champion Seattle Thunderbirds.
The 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup continues on Saturday afternoon as Erie battles Seattle at 3:00pm ET/12:00pm PT on Sportsnet, TVA Sports and streaming online at CHL Live.