Windsor 4, Brampton 1. My Spitfires are one game closer to (and only one win away from) their second OHL Championship. After suffering a setback on Monday in game 3 at the hands of a determined Brampton club, the Spits stormed out of the gate in the first last night and attacked the Brampton goal (occupied by Thomas McCollum) repeatedly and in waves. The sold-out Powerade Centre in Brampton was bursting at the seams with 4,861 junior hockey fans (including, I am happy to note, a very noticeable and very vocal contingent of Spitfire supporters), but the Battalion players seemed unable to draw sufficient energy from their assembled well-wishers to assist them in mounting an effective counter-attack at the outset of the game. The Spitfires carried by far the vast majority of the play in the first frame and outshot the home side by a margin of 12-7; in fact, with only the occasional generally fleeting Brampton foray into Windsor territory, to my mind that shot count is somewhat misleading as it fails to reflect the territorial advantage enjoyed by the Sptifires throughout the period. I suspect that many of those 7 Brampton shots were accumulated during the power-play they had when Windsor’s Richard Greenop was called for high-sticking well behind the play. At times during the first, the Windsorites seemed to cycle the puck low in the Brampton zone almost at will. To the credit of the Brampton defenders, they prevented with some frequency the prolonged Windsor cycling from developing into truly high quality scoring opportunities. In fact, for much of the period it seemed as though the Battalion would manage to survive the sustained offensive pressure in their zone; of greater concern for Brampton coach Stan Butler, no doubt, would have been Windsor’s success in the transition game. I counted at least a half-dozen odd-man rushes generated by Brampton turnovers either at, or just over the Windsor blueline – including one early four-on-two attack that must have had Butler reaching for the Alka Seltzer.
Windsor’s goal in the first was scored near the half-way point of the period by defenceman Ben Shutron. Following one of the aforementioned sustained cycling series in the corner to McCollum’s left, and with a boatload of traffic criss-crossing in front of the Brampton netminder, the puck came loose in the high slot to Shutron, who took two steps in from the blueline and absolutely wired a low rocket towards the goal. It appeared as though McCollum got a piece of the shot with the interior of his left pad, but not enough to prevent the puck from bulging the twine behind him. During the intermission, my Dad and I were agreed that the home side were likely happy to only be down by a goal entering the second period, and expected a strong push from them.
First, though, Brampton had to kill of the tripping penalty assessed to Battalion forward Anthony Peluso in the final seconds of the first stanza. Strong penalty killing and a seemingly nervous Windsor power-play unit combined to prevent any real quality scoring opportunities for the visitors as the second period began. Nevertheless, it felt a little like Brampton was tempting fate when Thomas Stajan took a cross-checking penalty to put the Battalion two men down for about twenty seconds. The Windsor power play looked disorganized and seemed actually less effective than the team had in five-on-five play. With both penalties successfully killed off, the Windsor offensive mojo seemingly disrupted by their own power play and the Battalion fans in full-throated disagreement with certain of the referees’ recent choices, it was obvious to everyone in the building that momentum was shifting to the home side and the next penalty was likely to be assessed against the Spitfires.
As the Battalion surged noticeably and the Spits tried to buckle down defensively and protect their one goal lead without committing any obvious fouls, I essentially began to hold my breath. Brampton was no longer turning the puck over and began largely carrying the play, mounting sustained attacks of their own. During a couple of scrambles around the Windsor net, Battalion forwards were unable to corral a loose or bouncing puck (the puck seemed to bounce a LOT last night, suggesting the Powerade Centre ice surface was struggling to cope with the many humans respiring humans gathered around it) and failed to score on quality opportunities, including one or two that came on the power play when Windsor goalie Andrew Engelage was assessed a tripping minor. With about five minutes to play in the second, Windsor had the puck again in the corner to McCollum’s right. It was fed directly back along the boards to Jesse Blacker at the left point, who dished it immediately along the blueline to his defence partner Mark Cundari; Cundari’s slapshot from the point was tipped in front by Windsor forward Scott Timmins and the score was 2-0. The Windsor fans exploded and I think everyone in the building had a sense at that point that it wasn’t Brampton’s night. I was able to exhale; too bad for the guy sitting next to me, as I had polished off two of the Powerade Centre’s tasty but no doubt odiferous hot dogs prior to the game.
As the second period drew to a close, Brampton seemed to sag a little again – they had killed off the early two man disadvantage and had clearly been the better team since the beginning of the second, but were no further ahead for their efforts and had now actually lost ground. In the final two minutes, Windsor had a glorious chance in tight on the Brampton net, with McCollum down and out and a mad scramble in front that somehow failed to produce a third Windsor goal. The puck came free to Brampton defender Josh Day, who calmly gathered it in, looked up and realized that Battalion captain Cody Hodgson had managed to somehow anticipate the play beautifully, slip behind the Windsor defence standing still at the blue line and break towards the middle. Day hit him in stride with a beautiful pass and Hodgson was away on a clear breakaway from about centre-ice, one on one with Andrew Engelage. Hodgson had been in motion from the outset of the play and had managed to catch the Spitfire defence standing still; once he had the puck on his stick at centre, he accelerated to top speed and built a gap between himself and his pursuers. The end result was that as he entered the Spitfire zone and Engelage charged out of the crease to challenge, Hodgson was able to slow slightly, gather the puck in and prepare to make his move from a position of relative comfort. Engelage played it well, retreating towards his goal as Hodgson drove towards the net on his forehand and following as Hodgson pulled the puck to his backhand and shifted slightly to the left, towards the goaltender’s stick side. Sensing the backhand was imminent, Engelage dropped to his knees in the butterfly stance as he and Hodgson arrived near the left post simultaneously, but Hodgson’s quiet backhand was already on its way through the opening between the goalie’s legs that had been created by the subtle stick-side shift. Goal Brampton; the home fans exploded in celebration and it seemed clear that the Spitfires were certain to face a re-invigorated group of Brampton skaters in the final period.
It was, as predicted, a spirited beginning to the third; by the time Spitfire defensive standout Ryan Ellis drew a hooking penalty at the 1:45 mark, I was in full-on no breathing, grip-the-edge-of-the-seat mode, muttering to myself and wondering how long it could possibly be before the Battalion tied the game. The Spits killed that penalty brilliantly, and seemed to regain a little confidence; the teams seemed more or less evenly matched. There were good scoring opportunities on both sides, but the Sptifires rang two pucks off the post to McCollum’s left on one shift within seconds of each other. Still, Brampton refused to go away. They didn’t seem to me like a team that had been beaten 10-1 in the opening game of the series.
And then it happened. Windsor had the puck on the rush through the neutral zone. Since scoring their second goal, rather than attempting to carry the disc over the blueline, Windsor had been (wisely, in my view) consistently choosing to simply deposit the puck deep in the Brampton zone, and to then chase it when it’s 180 feet from Engelage and out of harm’s way. There was nothing special about this particular attack; with the puck shot in to the corner to McCollum’s left, Spitfire forward Lane MacDermid beat the Brampton defender by maybe half a step to the boards where it lay. Because of the instant pressure applied upon him by his check, MacDermid was unable to gain immediate possession of the puck; he did, however, manage to struggle with his opponent for position in such a way as to prevent the Brampton defenseman from gaining access to the puck either. MacDermid and the Battalion player jostled for perhaps eight or ten seconds in the corner, MacDermid twisting and turning, moving slightly side to side, hands outstretched and on the rinkside glass to stabilize himself against the growing pressure from behind until he saw an opportunity to gather the puck and dish it back along the wall to his linemate Andrei Loktoniov. Loktoniov too was contending with a Brampton defender, but managed to get his stick on the pass and shovelled a two-handed backhand at the net short side. Somehow, the puck managed to elude McCollum, who was down in his butterfly stance, just above his pad and past his outstretched trapper. Goal Windsor, 3-1 with a little more than 12 minutes remaining.
The chant of “Go Spits Go” rang through the Powerade Centre, and I knew that the game was in the bag.
Loktoniov would add another goal about five minutes later to seal the deal, following which the play became, as they say “a little chippy”, by which euphemism it is meant to convey the fact that players on both teams became outright assaultive towards one another as it had become clear to them that the result of this game was no longer in serious doubt. Charged up by their fourth goal, and emboldened by the size of the lead, Windsor began to lay on the body quite heavily, and Brampton retaliated in kind. As tempers flared on both benches, each team began to take some liberties with the other, and penalties were assessed. The parade to the penalty box did result in a lengthy 5-on-3 man advantage for Brampton late in the game after a segment of particularly aggressive play. With about three minutes to play, Windsor forward Dale Mitchell appeared to have been tripped by a Brampton defender while driving towards the Battalion net; Mitchell’s ensuing collision with McCollum earned him a goaltender interference penalty and evidently injured the goalie, who left the game immediately thereafter. Predictably, that collision resulted in a fracas behind the Brampton net that served only to further elevate tempers; not even a minute after the puck was dropped again on the Brampton power play, all hell broke loose as Windsor forwards Taylor Hall and Paul MacDermid received roughing penalties while Brampton forward and super-pest Matt Kang drew a cross-checking minor. Kang, MacDermid and one other Windsor player drew ten minute misconducts as well. With just over two minutes to play and a one-minute plus two man advantage, Brampton had been given a chance to try and mount a comeback – had they scored quickly on the 5 on 3, then produced another while still on the man advantage, anything might have happened with the goalie out to end the game.
The Spitfires calmly killed off the 5 on 3 though; timely faceoff wins limited the Brampton squad’s ability to get quickly organized in the Windsor zone. It also seemed to me that when they did recover the puck deep in the Spitfire zone, they would pass it back to the point men, who held the puck and waited for traffic to develop in front of Engelage that never came. When they did direct shots at him, Engelage was able to see them and direct the rebounds harmlessly to the corner. By the time the 5 on 3 advantage had expired – actually, it may have been a 6 on 3 because I think Brampton had pulled goaltender Killeen at this point – you could see it in the body language of the Battalion players, they knew they were beaten.
I’ll have a bit more about my impressions of the game later today. For now, Go Spits Go!!!! Game 5 is Friday night in Windsor, 7:05 start time, available live on CKLW AM 800’s website.