The Saginaw Spirit (31-14-2-2) are back atop the western conference standings (tied with London) following a 6-3 victory over the Erie Otters in front of 5,270 at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw Saturday night.
For the first time in over two months, Spirit head coach Chris Lazary was happy to finally have a full roster at his disposal, giving him one of the top lineups in the Ontario Hockey League.
“It's exciting,” Lazary said. “There are a lot of guy's with good experience and there's a lot of guys who carried the weight when we were short, but now that we have guys back you can just see the elevation in our game.”
Ilya Solovyov (World Juniors), along with Blade Jenkins and DJ King (knee injuries) have all recently made their way back, however, the biggest impact to the team could have arguably been the return of defenseman Reilly Webb, who came back from an upper body injury (suffered on Dec 30,) in time for Friday's 6-3 road victory over Sarnia.
Webb's return allowed Lazary to move utility man DJ Busdeker back up to forward, which balances out the lines, but more importantly gives Lazary some peace of mind, knowing he'll have the calming presence of his veteran defenseman on the ice.
“Reilly Webb may be one of the most underrated defensemen in the OHL,” Lazary added. “From a defending standpoint, from a breakout standpoint, from being able to get shots through from the point -from start of breakout through transition- I think he's one of the best in the league; he's arguably our undercover MVP of the season.”
The Spirit jumped out to an early lead after Webb had been whistled for a hooking penalty just under three minutes into the game, which led to Cole Coskey (27) scoring a shorthanded goal for a 1-0 lead at 3:52 of the first period, while Cole Perfetti (29) followed with another shorthanded goal on a feed from Coskey to take a 2-0 lead at 10:05 of the first, before Jake Goldowski (13) scored with assists from Danil Antropov and Mason Millman at the 15:12 mark to give the Spirit a 3-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
Erie battled back in the middle frame when Matthew MacDougall (3) scored to make it a 3-1 game at 8:40 of the second period, before Emmett Sproule (11) followed with a goal at 18:21 of the second to cut the Spirit lead to 3-2 after two periods of play.
The Spirit answered early in the final frame when captain Damien Giroux (31) scored back to back goals, giving his team a 4-3 lead on a feed from Busdeker at 5:35 of the third then lighting the lamp with his second of the night with assists coming from Webb and Jenkins for a 5-2 lead at 9:10 of the third.
Erie, however, would not go quietly as Daniel D'Amato (15) managed to cut the Saginaw lead to 5-3 with a goal at 12:44 of the third period, before Spirit forward Ryan Suzuki (12) put the game out of reach, scoring an empty net goal with assists from Webb and Coskey to round out the scoring (6-3) at 19:26 of the third.
Saginaw goal tender Tristan Lennox looked good in between the pipes, turning away 25 of the 28 shots he would face.
The Spirit, who are currently tied with the London Knights (66-points each) for first place in the western conference standings, will have a shot to gain some ground with a visit to Budweiser Gardens in London, ON where face off is set for 7:30 pm Friday night.