It’s been a month since the Windsor Spitfires saw their 2017 OHL playoff run come to a disappointing demise at the hands of the defending Mastercard Memorial Cup champion London Knights.
Vancouver Canucks first round pick Olli Juolevi scored the third period game winner in Game 7 as the London Knights recovered from a 3-1 series deficit to come back and stun the Spitfires with a 3-2 win on home ice.
The empty feeling hasn’t gone away, but the Spits have a lot on the horizon and won’t be dwelling on the past.
“We still feel like we should be out playing, but it’s time to turn the page and I think we’ve done a good job of that and put in a lot of work these past two weeks,” said veteran centreman Aaron Luchuk.
“A lot of the guys are still feeling the pain of Game 7, I know I do,” he continued. “It was a tough loss. It was something that I certainly haven’t forgotten and I think it’s helped me personally keep that edge.”
“I don’t want to have that bitter taste again and I think a lot of guys feel the same way.”
The Knights suffered their own Game 7 heartbreak in the round two, seeing their title defence come to an end at the hands of the Erie Otters who are one of six CHL clubs remaining on the road to the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup. They’re joined by the Eastern Conference champion Mississauga Steelheads, the WHL’s Regina Pats and Seattle Thunderbirds along with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
With three highly skilled opponents set to emerge from Championship Series action across the Canadian Hockey League, the Spits know they’ll need to be sharp for their first Mastercard Memorial Cup appearance since the second of back-to-back titles in 2010.
Head coach Rocky Thompson has his club hard at work in preparation.
“Practice has been intense, probably the hardest I’ve ever experienced,” said draft eligible goaltender Michael DiPietro who tied a Spitfires single-season record with a 2.35 goals-against average this past season. “These are probably the hardest practices I’ve ever done on a repeated basis.”
“It’s a real grind right now for all of us,” added Luchuk. “It’s a lot of hard work. There’s some aching body parts for sure.”
The Spitfires got a shot in the arm amidst the sweat and daily grind of this past week as 6-foot-7 defenceman Logan Stanley has been cleared to return to the lineup when the puck drops on Friday May 19th.
The big rearguard had four goals, 13 assists and 17 points in 35 games this season after being Winnipeg’s first round (17th overall) pick in the NHL Draft last summer. He went down with a knee injury on January 17th against Kitchener.
“Mentally its tough not being able to practice and I think its going to be really exciting once I do get to play,” said Stanley of his recovery. “Things are looking good right now, my knee feels great and I’m really excited to help the team win.”
Stanley’s return would give the Spitfires a formidable top four on the back end that includes Montreal Canadiens first round pick Mikhail Sergachev, New York Rangers prospect Sean Day and overage Vancouver Canucks signee Jalen Chatfield.
“We really miss him, especially on the penalty kill,” said long-time Spitfires GM Warren Rychel. “He’s a guy that eats minutes and takes pride in penalty killing. He’s a big body back there and we miss him for his outlet passes too.”
For Rychel, who architected Windsor’s back-to-back championship squads in 2009 and 2010, the lead up to the big event has been meticulously thought out as the club prepares to take to the ice in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd.
“We gotta keep fresh,” he noted. “We’re doing a lot of things off the ice like two-a-days, but giving the players ample rest as well. They had a chance to go back to their hometowns for a few days which is great, but we’ve gotta keep them sharp. We’re doing some team-building things this weekend.
“It’s all about May 19th and being ready to go for the drop of the puck.”
The Spits will open the tournament against the winner of the QMJHL President Cup Final between the Saint John Sea Dogs and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
While there’ll be no shortage of action on the ice, there’s plenty happening in the community.
The Mastercard Memorial Cup will arrive in Windsor on Thursday May 18th before an opening banquet that features Spitfires graduate and long-time NHL forward Adam Graves takes place at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts.
The arrival of the Memorial Cup kicks off a 10-day Community Tour that spans the entire city of Windsor as the trophy will make appearances in a number of different locations across the region.
Prominent NHL stars including Steven Stamkos (Sarnia Sting), Aaron Ekblad (Barrie Colts), Jeff Skinner (Kitchener Rangers) along with Spitfires grads Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique take to the ice on Saturday May 27th at 2:00pm in a special CHL Alumni Game at the WFCU Centre.
Single game tickets for the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup are now on sale.