The Saginaw Spirit's 2013 OHL season came to an end Thursday March, 28 when they were swept in the first round of the OHL playoffs (4-games to-zero) by the London Knights. The Spirit dropped game four in the first round of the best-of-seven playoff series 6-2 in front of 4,034 fans at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw Thursday evening.
London started strong and never looked back; as they skated into the first intermission with a 3-1 lead. The back-breaker came when London forward, Bo Horvat scored an unassisted goal with just sixteen seconds remaining in the second period. Horvat’s goal gave the Knights a comfortable 4-1 lead through two periods of play. London defenseman, Olli Maatta extended the lead to 5-1 at the 1:51 mark of the final period; then forward, Remi Elie scored goal number six for London, prompting Spirit coach, Greg Gilbert to pull (arguably) the OHL’s best goal tender and replace him with Spirit rookie tender (Moscow, Russia native) Nikita Serebryakov at 4:53 of the third period.
Paterson stopped 17-of the-23 shots he faced Thursday night; which (on paper) may have looked like Paterson was having a bad night “statistically,” but the problem was not entirely Jake Paterson’s fault. The Spirit defensemen; as well as wingers (defending in their own zone) have continually had problems clearing guys out in front of the net, and in the high-slot area throughout this post season, as well as the regular season, resulting in a lot of rebound goals from the high slot. Saginaw had just one game in this series where they effectively protected Paterson; which, ironically turned out to be the one close game in this series. The Spirit will now have to focus on the positives from this season and look forward to the future. Saginaw was the second youngest team in the OHL this season behind Erie.
Although he was naturally upset with his young teams weak defensive effort this post season, coach Gilbert realizes there were some positive aspects to having such a young team. Gilbert was forced to give the younger guys much more ice time than most OHL rookies are used to seeing. That experience, especially the post season experience, will be invaluable over the next few years.
“The kids battled through a lot this year just to get to the post season, you know with injuries and what have you,” Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert said. “It was really disappointing –the way we played in the post season- we had one game where we really competed and maybe deserved a better fate; but, the other three (games) were not even close.” “I mean, you’ve got to hand it to London, they’re a heck of a hockey club, there’s no two-ways about that,” added Gilbert. “But, it’s a learning experience, especially for our young guys who are going to be returning; they had their eyes opened, and now they see what playoff hockey is all about; how well your details have to be and how strong you have to play, and I guess there is no better team to learn that from than London.”
With the OHL priority selection draft coming in April, the Spirit will have to start looking to shore up the defense. First year defenseman, Brandon Prophet was a very bright spot on Saginaw’s “Rear-Guard” this season, and veteran Steven Strong (who was hampered by frustrating injuries this season) will be back on the blue line looking for some redemption next year. Jake Ringuette will be the most experienced defenseman returning to the Spirit for his fourth season; along with Dalton Young, Grant Webermin, and Ramon Lopez. The Spirit will have to replace their most effective defenseman this off season, as Jason Shaw will “age-out” of the league. Either through the draft or free agency, Gilbert made it clear that the focus for next year will definitely be on shoring up the Spirit defense.
“Focus will have to be on the back-end,” said Gilbert. “Our back-end this year was not what we wanted it to be, or what we needed it to be; there were kids who went through some learning experiences, but we’ve got to be a little meaner back there -a little more astute and puck-savvy- and our details have to be better; so, our defense is probably one of the primary area’s where we will need to focus.”
Gilbert also pointed out that the future of the Spirit rests on players who showed great potential in their rookie campaign, guys like: Zach Bratina, Andrey Alexeev, Jeremiah Addison, and Brandon Prophet will have to focus their off season workouts on getting stronger, and learning how to play with more of an aggressive edge. Gilbert noted that (as is the case with most young hockey players making a jump to a higher level) they have to realize they are not at the top of the food chain, so to speak. Their puck handling and skating skills will not be enough to get by at a higher level of Hockey; these guys will have to work harder to gain any extra little edge, with a primary focus of packing on strength and muscle to absorb the day-to-day beating your body takes playing in the OHL.
“With these young guys, they’re going to have to put in the investment this summer,” Gilbert said. “You know, Zach (Bratina) has got to be a lot stronger; Andrey (Alexeev) has to be a lot stronger; Proph’s (Brandon Prophet) going to have to be a lot stronger and meaner; these are the things these kids have to learn; you know, they probably didn’t have to be that strong and that mean playing Minor-Hockey, but now, they’re playing Major-Junior and they’ve got to learn that it’s part of the game and something they will have to put into their repertoire (so to speak) to become a more rounded player.”
Second-year forward, Jimmy Lodge stepped in when Vincent Trocheck was traded to the Plymouth Whalers earlier this season, and the eighteen year-old from Downingtown, Pa fit in nicely with veterans Eric Locke and Garret Ross on the first line. Lodge was ranked number 28 on the list of top North American Hockey players eligible for the 2013 NHL draft this June, according to NHL Central Scouting’s mid-season rankings on nhl.com. Spirit forward, Nick Moutrey was ranked number 46 on the same list. Lodge realizes he will have to take on the role of a leader next year with the departure of Garret Ross. For Lodge, the hard work will continue as he sets his sights on possibly making the NHL combine; along with the hope of getting drafted and working out at an NHL training camp this summer.
“Well, I’m definitely trying to make the NHL combine coming up in May or late April,” said Lodge. “It’s kind of a big thing (personally) for me to train at the combine; and after that, I’ll get ready for next season by working out and training hard.” “It’ll definitely be a switch (next year) losing our older guys, and it’s going to be my third year in the league,” noted Lodge. “I’ll have to step up as a leader and show the younger guys what they’ll have to do to help our team; it was a big help watching the veterans this year in the dressing room and how they treated the younger guys; which will help me next year when I’m one of the older guys.”
The Spirit will have most of the 2012-13 team returning for next season; but they will lose one of the most prolific players in Saginaw Spirit history when Garret Ross ages out of the OHL after spending his entire OHL career in Saginaw. Ross was emotional after playing his final game wearing a Saginaw Spirit sweater. The Dearborn, Mi native will now shift his focus to his NHL club, the Chicago Blackhawks. Ross was drafted by Chicago in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL draft, joining former Spirit star, Brandon Saad in the Blackhawk organization.
“It was definitely emotional for me, after walking into this organization as a free agent, having these guys see something in me, and keeping me around for all four years is actually a pretty special feeling,” an appreciative and emotional Garret Ross said in the Spirit dressing room following Thursday night’s game. “Not many guys in this league get to play for the same team for their whole career, so I’m very happy to have done that here.” “Now, I just hope to have a strong off season, put on some size and gain some strength to get ready to make the next step in my career.”