The Saginaw Spirit (27-32-7-2) did not qualify for the 2017 post season, however, you would not have thought that was the case following a 4-3 loss to the Windsor Spitfires in its final regular season game when an incredible 5,848 (standing room only) fans showed up to support the Spirit at the Dow Event Center tonight.
One year ago, the Spirit managed to qualify for the post-season; although, with a 2015-16 record of 24-36-5-3 (56 points in the standings) compared to this season's 27-32-7-2 record (63 points in the standings) the Spirit were actually more productive this year, unfortunately, the entire western conference was also much more productive than one year ago.
The Spirit honored its three overage players (C.J. Garcia, Hayden Hodgson, and Kris Bennett) in a ceremony prior to the face off tonight.
Garcia came to the Spirit this past off-season as an overage defenseman after spending the 2015-16 season as the captain of the Guelph Storm.
He was selected in the third round (48 overall) of the 2012 OHL priority selection draft by the Barrie Colts and spent two and a half years there before moving to Guelph. Garcia finished his final OHL year with 22-points (6-goals, 16-assists) over 64-games for the Spirit this year.
Hodgson was drafted in the third round (44 overall) by the Erie Otters in the 2012 OHL priority selection draft and spent a year and a half there before joining the Sarnia Sting for a couple years prior to joining the Spirit late last year.
Hodgson really found his stride in Saginaw as the teams leading scorer this year, adding a career high 66-points (38-goals, 28-assists) in 66-games this year.
Bennett has been a fan favorite wearing a Spirit sweater for his entire OHL career after being selected by the Spirit in the third round (50 overall) in the 2012 OHL priority selection draft.
He developed into a leader on this team and in the community over the past two seasons as he comes off the best two years of his career with 39 points (24-goals, 15-assists) in 2015-16 followed by 51-points (25-goals, 26-assists) in 66-games this year.
Bennett will leave Saginaw as arguably one of the most popular players in franchise history, which is due -in large part- to his blue collar work ethic on the ice as a player; a work ethic that relates well to the blue-collar spirit of our city.
The Spirit could have easily just packed it in, however, this team fought hard until the final whistle tonight, trying to send the biggest crowd of the season home happy.
Windsor took an early lead on a shorthanded goal from Aaron Luchuk (27) at 7:30 of the first period following a 2 minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to his teammate Cristiano DiGiacinto at 5:39 of the opening period.
In his final OHL game, Garcia tied the game at 1 goal apiece at the 14:59 mark of the first period when he fired a hard pass from the left point, across the slot, to the far dot and the puck took a fortunate bounce off the shin-pad of Windsor defenseman Austin McEneny and ricocheted directly into the net past a surprised Spitfire goal tender Michael DiPietro.
Hayden Davis and Damien Giroux assisted on Garcia's goal.
DiGiacinto (13) then beat Spirit goal tender Evan Cormier for his thirteenth goal of the season with 41 seconds left in the first period at the 19:19 mark to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
Luchuk (28) added his second of the night to stretch the Windsor lead to 3-1 at 14:53 of the second period.
Second year Spirit defenseman Markus Niemelainen (a third round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, 63 overall, in the 2016 NHL draft) creeped down low on the right side for a power play goal from Brady Gilmour and Garcia to get the Spirit to within one goal (3-2) of Windsor at 16:41 of the second period.
Windsor right wing Jeremy Bracco (25) made it a 4-2 game with his twenty-fifth goal of the season just :24 seconds into the third period, which would prove to be the game winner.
Niemelainen (3) followed with his second of the game from Max Grondin and Cole Coskey at 2:14 of the final period to round out the Spirit scoring.
Cormier (a fourth round pick of the New Jersey Devils, 105 overall, in the 2016 NHL draft) turned away 22 of the 26 shots he faced in net for the Spirit tonight, capping another great season as Saginaw's top goal tender.
The Spirit ownership, management, and coaching staff will now shift its focus to the 2017 OHL priority selection draft on April, 12 of this year where it will begin to build future Spirit talent.