After an hour and a half delay, the Saginaw Spirit and Windsor Spitfires made Ontario Hockey League history as they became the first OHL teams to play a regular season game outdoors Sunday afternoon. The two teams brought their share of loyal followers, as 25,749 fans witnessed Windsor’s 6-5 win, braving the winter weather at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit where the Tigers play their major league baseball home games during the warmer months.
Sunday’s outdoor game was just one-of the many- events scheduled for the 2013 Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park; which began Thursday December, 26 with local High School hockey games, followed by the Great Lakes Invitational, (a two-day tournament) featuring four NCAA hockey teams from Michigan (Michigan Tech, Western Michigan, MSU, and UofM) on December, 27 and 28. Monday night will feature an AHL game between (Red Wings top farm club) the Grand Rapids Griffins and (Maple Leafs top farm club) the Toronto Marlies; while the Comerica Park games wrap up with a double header on New Year’s Eve, featuring two alumni games with former greats from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings respectively. Finally on New Year’s Day, the action moves over to the Big House in Ann Arbor for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic; where the Detroit Red Wings play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL’s sixth celebration of the annual event (this event was originally scheduled for 2012 but was cancelled due to the 2012 NHL lockout).
As has been the case for most of Saginaw’s 2013-14 hockey season –particularly over the last month- the Spirit seemed to forget that there are three periods to a hockey game. This fairly young Spirit squad has had a very bad habit of playing great in the first-and-third periods, while collapsing in the second. Sunday was no different at Comerica Park. Windsor struck first when Ben Johnson scored a power play goal at 5:47 of the first period after Saginaw veteran defenseman, Justin Sefton was whistled for a two-minute check from behind penalty. Saginaw forward, Cody Payne and Windsor right wing, Ty Bilcke then decided to get to know eachother a little better when they dropped the gloves at 6:03 of the opening period. Payne received a game misconduct for leaving the bench to fight. Although Payne would watch the rest of the game in street clothes, the fight seemed to light a fire for the Spirit, as they battled their way back into the game with three consecutive goals (Eric Locke and Daniel DeSousa each scored in the first period, and Spirit Sniper, Jeremiah Addison roofed a onetime blast just 1:47 into the second period) to build a two-goal lead early in the second.
There-in lies the rub, as they say in the movies. After Addison gave the Spirit a two-goal cushion early in the second period, the Spirit seemed to fall back into that traditional second-period "lull" for which they have become so well known this year. Windsor proceeded to rattle off four consecutive goals, seemingly taking all of the frigid air out of Comerica Park for the Spirit faithful. The faithful Spirit fans who woke up early and withstood a near two-hour delay (due to a glare on the ice from the mid-afternoon sun, which caused shadows on the ice and made it dangerous and difficult for both goalies to pick up the puck) seemed completely deflated, especially after the delay and waking up early for the hour and a half drive down I-75 with the hopes of witnessing hockey history and a Saginaw victory. The meltdown started when Windsor scored back-to-back goals just thirty three seconds apart at 5:21 and 5:54 of the second period respectively. Windsor's Cristiano DiGiacinto easily found the back of the net when a Spirit defenseman failed to pick him up right as the puck was dropped on a face off to the right of Spirit goalie, Nikita Serebryakov. DiGiacinto found himself completely alone in front of Serebryakov, with the puck on his stick, and a clear lane to fire a wrist shot to get to within one goal of the Spirit. Thirty Three seconds later, after a Spirit penalty for slashing, Windsor defenseman, Slater Koekkoek tied the game with a power play goal. Those two quick goals sent the young Spirit squad into their second period "lull," allowing Windsor to score two more goals that period and take a two goal lead heading into the final period.
Spirit captain, Eric Locke -playing in just his second game since missing six weeks with an upper body injury- was determined to turn his team around like he did earlier in the season. The twenty year-old native of Toronto, Ontario finished last season as the Spirit's top offensive threat, and fourth leading scorer in the OHL with 97-points (44-goals, 53-assists). Locke, -who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 NHL draft- spent an extended pre-season earlier this year with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, The Rochester Americans; which caused the Spirit spark-plug to miss Saginaw’s first six games of the season. The Spirit were 2-4 without Locke to start the season, and went 5-14 during his recent 19-game departure. Locke will be looking to use his experience and leadership to change the atmosphere throughout the team, and try to steer the Spirit ship in the right direction for the rest of the season(even if it takes a couple games to get his legs back). “It’s good to be back, and I know getting back into game-shape is going to take a couple games, but we’re ready to put these two games behind us and come back hard against the Soo,” said Locke. “No one in this locker room likes losing –including myself- I hate to lose, and it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning; so, that is what we will be shooting for.”
The Saginaw boys did, however, wake up in the third period Sunday with the help of some Windsor penalties. Spirit veteran defenseman, Justin Sefton capitalized on a couple Windsor penalties following a long penalty kill for the Spit’s, and banged home a power play goal to get his team to within one-goal (5-4) of the Spitfires at 6:20 of the third period. Later on, following a four-minute major penalty to Windsor defenseman, Patrick Sanvido for a high-stick which drew blood; Spirit forward, Jimmy Lodge sent a laser-precision-guided pass from deep in the right-side zone across the front of the Windsor net to the top of the left circle; where Spirit defenseman, Brandon Prophet made quick work scoring the power play goal with a one-time blast, beating Windsor goalie, Dalen Kuchmey on the far side with a rocket (that never got more than a half inch off the ice) to tie the game at 5-goals apiece at the 11:40 mark of the final period. The Spirit and their and their faithful fans had just started to see some signs of life when –just one minute, and six-seconds following Prophet’s game tying goal- the Spitfires were whistled for their second consecutive four-minute major penalty after Windsor defenseman, Eric Diodati was called for a four-minute match penalty for checking from behind at 12:46 of the third period. Windsor forward, Steven Janes ended all hope for a Spirit comeback when he beat Serebryakov with a shorthanded game winning goal during the four-minute power play, sending the Spirit fans heading either to the exits, "Cheli's Chili Bowl," or "the Hockeytown Café" for some sorrow-drowning "Ginger-Ales."
Saginaw has been trying to get back to playing the brand of quality hockey they’re accustomed to, but they’ve had a very difficult month of December. After winning 14-of-21 games between October, 1 and November, 27 this season; the Spirit have only recorded one -victory in their last-eleven games. The last time the Spirit claimed a “W” was a 6-2 road win on December, 11 (which was six games ago). Following Sunday afternoons game -Spirit coach, Greg Gilbert was genuinely happy for his young players and their opportunity to experience and be part of such a historical hockey event- although, the former 15-year NHL pro (and 3-time Stanley Cup Champion) also had a hard time hiding the frustration with his young and talented group of players. “It was a great experience for the kids, and it’s something I’m sure they’ll never forget, it’s probably a once-in a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of these guys, so the experience was great, but the outcome was just A-typical of what we’ve been doing lately,” said Gilbert. “They (Windsor) caused some problems for us, we played solid and got the lead but then we made some silly mistakes and they made us pay for it; so, you know- we battled back, but when everything is going bad, then bad things are going to happen and obviously that (shorthanded) game-winning goal is one I’m sure Nik (Nikita Serebryakov) would like to have back, but we have to learn to get back to the way we were playing before; which means we have a lot of work to do,” continued Gilbert. “We’ve been juggling lines and juggling pairings to get some chemistry going and it’ll be there for a period or two, but then it just falls apart; you know, we’ve just been cutting too many corners, we’ve got too many guys who aren’t playing the way we want to play as a team; you know, our montra is to bring pressure and to be a physical hockey club, and I don’t mean ‘silly-physical,’ I mean just playing detailed hockey, finishing checks, it’s a simple part of the game of hockey, it’s a contact sport and we’ve got some guys who aren’t too concerned with playing like that.”
Gilbert went on to talk about many of the outside distractions some of these young players -most of whom are still just teenagers- are dealing with; while hoping they will learn that sometimes it's just good ole fashioned hard work and getting back to the basic's of hockey that will ultimately turn things around to win some games. “There’s a lot of different circumstances; some guys are pressing to get signed (by their NHL club), and some guys are pressing to get drafted, and they think by trying to do too much impresses people, but really it just shows their overall lack of hockey-sense and understanding of how the game needs to be played; so, until they mature and understand that, I guess we’ll still be playing pond-hockey, and we’ll still be trying to play Checker’s and not Chess.”