The Saginaw Spirit (6-2-1-0) moved into a first place tie (with the Guelph Storm) in the Ontario Hockey League's western conference standings, winning its fifth straight with a 2-1 victory over the Kitchener Rangers (5-2-2-0) at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw tonight.
Knowing his team has had a tendency to start slow in games this year -like when the Spirit fell behind 2-0 early in yesterday's win over the North Bay Battalion- second year Spirit head coach Troy Smith was relieved to see his team respond with a very strong start in an important game against a very good Kitchener team.
“It was a good start,” Smith said. “And for as early as it is (in the season) that was the most 'playoff-like' game we've played yet this year. I was happy with the way we played down the stretch, playing with a one goal lead, it's a good lesson for us moving forward.”
The Spirit jumped out to an early lead when second year forward Nicholas Porco (8) scored his team-high eighth goal of the season with assists coming from Damien Giroux and Reilly Webb for a 1-0 Saginaw lead just 3:38 into the opening period.
With just 14 total points (5-goals, 9-assists) through 57 games as a rookie last year, Porco has gotten off to a great sophomore campaign with 10 points (8-goals, 2-assists) in just 9 games, leading the Spirit in goals, while tied for fifth in the entire OHL, which gives the 17-year old native of Sault Ste. Marie, ON some confidence as he looks to impress NHL scouts in his draft eligible year.
“It's awesome, there's a bunch of chemistry and it's a lot of fun out there, especially playing with the teammates I have,” Porco said of both he and his team's early success this year. “Honestly, you know the game has slowed down a lot for me starting out this year, It just feels like there's a lot more time and space to make plays, and to finish off plays.”
The Rangers managed to even things up midway through the first when veteran RW Joseph Gareffa (5) scored his fifth goal of the season with assists from Rickard Hugg and Donovan Sebrango which knotted the game at 1-goal apiece at 10:19 of the first period.
After a scoreless second period, the game remained tied for nearly 45-minutes, before Giroux (who's scored 4-goals and 3-assists in a 24-hour span at the Dow Event Center) capped an incredible weekend with the game winning goal with assists coming from Bode Wilde and Albert Michnac for a 2-1 Spirit lead at 15:04 of the third period.
Both goal tender's played outstanding in an emotion-filled game, with Kitchener goalie Luke Wilson stopping 25 of the 27 shots he faced in net for the Rangers, while Spirit goal tender Ivan Prosvetov turned away 24 of the 25 shots he saw in between the pipes for Saginaw.
Prosvetov, a fourth round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in the 2018 NHL draft, is starting to prove to Smith he's capable of leading the Spirit like he led the Youngstown Phantoms to the United States Hockey League finals a year ago. Despite the language barrier, Saginaw's 2018 CHL import draft first round pick has elevated his game to match the pace and competition of the OHL.
“I think he's getting more comfortable,” Smith said of Prosvetov. “It's tough, you know, English isn't his first language and this is a different league than the USHL; it's significantly better. So, I think he's gotten better every game and that's a credit to him putting in some hard work.”
The Spirit will have a few days off, before heading north on I-75 for a big west division showdown with the Soo Greyhounds at 7:07 pm at GFL Memorial Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie, ON Wednesday night.
With his team having won the past five games, Smith doesn't like to call it a streak, he'd prefer to stick to the process and take it game by game.
“At the end of the day, it's not a streak if you don't win the next game,” Smith concluded. “So, let's worry about the next game now, and we're going to move on from it. It's nice to build some confidence, but when you're dealing with 16 to 20 year old kids it also can be dangerous, where they can get complacent. So we have to make sure we're on the side of confident and not complacent.”