Playing good hockey –in its simplest form- is all about skating hard, playing physical, and making sure you are in position to beat your opponent to the puck. This is the exact formula Saginaw Spirit head coach, Greg Gilbert and his young Spirit team implemented this weekend to win their fifth straight game, beating the OHL’s top ranked team, the London Knights 5-2 in front of 4,021 fans at the Dow Event Center Saturday night.
Coming into Saturday evening’s game with the Spirit; the Knights had won 26-of their last-27 games, and recently had a 23-game winning streak (second longest in OHL history) snapped when they fell to the Sarnia Sting 6-5 in front of 9,046 fans at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario on New Year’s Day of this year.
The Spirit have now won five straight games ( their longest winning streak of the season), in every one of those games, the young Spirit players have slowly started grasping what coach Greg Gilbert has been preaching when he says they need to be more physical on the ice. Gilbert preaches a physical brand of hockey and lately it is exactly what his young team has been delivering on the ice. “It is part of the game, you can work on it all you want (in practice), but if you don’t do it in the game, you just won’t do it at all,” said the second year Spirit coach. “Our guys are starting to understand that it’s part of the game now. Physicality is a huge way of wearing your opponent down; and when you turn away from hits and you try to play a soft game, bad things can happen; but, we’re starting to get the hang of it and our guys are seeing the good things that can happen when you play physical.” Gilbert knows a thing-or-two about physical play; as he won three Stanley Cups throughout sixteen seasons in the NHL, carving out a niche for himself as a “grind-line” player.
The Spirit jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one period of play Saturday night. Justin Kea scored his sixteenth goal of the season to open the scoring for the Spirit at 6:48 of the first period. After London’s Nikita Zadorov was whistled for elbowing at 16:18 of the first period, (recently named) Spirit team captain, Garret Ross took advantage of the London penalty and scored his twenty-third goal of the season at 17:41 of the first period.
Spirit coach, Greg Gilbert definitely did his homework on the visiting London Knights, as he constantly had all five of his Spirit players on the ice converge into the high slot area whenever London skated the puck into the Saginaw zone. Gilbert recognized that London likes to send their guys right down the middle while coming into the opposing zone, instead of dumping the puck around the boards and crashing the net. So, he had the Spirit players collapse into the middle when London came across their blue line; which, in turn either clogged the shooting lanes, resulting in low-percentage shots for London, or created turnovers -resulting in quite a few odd man rushes- in transition for the Spirit.
“London likes to do a lot of stuff through the middle, and the tighter we were back there (on defense), the better we could cut off a lot of plays on the back side,” said Gilbert. “London likes to throw the puck through the middle and we were right on top of guys, and we didn’t give them great shooting opportunities for the most part.”
Saginaw extended the lead to 4-0 before London battled back with two goals late in the second, making it a close 4-2 game through two periods of play. Spirit rookie, Andrey Alexeev scored his sixth goal of the season at 6:11 of the second period, which became the eventual game winner for the Spirit. Shortly after Alexeev’s goal -while on the power play- Jimmy Lodge scored his fourteenth goal of the season. As Lodge tried to center a pass from behind the London net, the puck hit the London goalie in the back of the skates and bounced back into the net for Saginaw’s second power play goal of the night, and a 4-0 Spirit lead at 13:15 of the second period.
The Spirit eventually started to fall into some of their old bad habits as London battled back late in the second period. The Spirit players started allowing too much time and space between themselves and the London skaters with the puck, resulting in two late second period goals for the Knights. “Our Gaps have got to be better; they have to be better every night, they have to be tighter,” Gilbert said about the distance which his players allow between themselves and the opposing player possessing the puck, who they’re supposed to be covering. “Our defensemen have to understand, and our forwards have to understand that the tighter we are against somebody who has the puck, the less opportunity in space we will give them.”
Things became a little scary for Saginaw, when Spirit assistant captain, Eric Locke was whistled for slashing at 17:57 of the third period; giving London an opportunity for a two-man advantage (6-on-4 with the pulled goalie) for the majority of the final two minutes of the game. But, Garret Ross sealed the deal for the Spirit when he banged home a short-handed empty-net goal with just sixteen seconds left in regulation. Ross led the Spirit scoring attack with two goals and one assist, while Justin Kea finished the night with a goal and an assist. Jimmy Lodge and Andrey Alexeev chipped in with one goal apiece respectively. Spirit goalie, Jake Paterson turned away 32-of the-34 shots the high powered London offense threw at him Saturday evening.
The Spirit will return to the Dow Event Center Friday January, 18 for game number six-of-seven straight home games, as they play host to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – the team they are trying to catch in the west division of the OHL’s western conference standings. If the OHL playoffs began today, the Spirit would sneak in with the eighth and final spot in the OHL’s western conference. The top eight teams from each conference (western and eastern) qualify for the OHL playoffs which begin in March.
With their current five-game winning streak, the Spirit have put a little distance between themselves and the Windsor Spitfires (16-19-1-6 for 39 points). Windsor is in fifth place in the west division and in ninth place in the OHL’s western conference. Sault Ste. Marie is in third place in the OHL’s west division (seventh in the western conference) with a record of 23-18-2-1 for 49 points; while the Spirit stand in fourth place in the west division (eighth in the western conference) with a record of 20-19-3-2 and 45 points.
A win Friday would draw the Spirit to within just two points (one win) of the third place Greyhounds. Fifteen year-old OHL rookie sensation, Connor McDavid and his team mate; Saginaw native, Devin Williams will return to the Dow Event Center later this week, as the Spirit host eastern conference –fellow American team- the Erie (Pennsylvania) Otters Saturday January, 19 for a 7:11 p.m. faceoff. The Spirit will then travel to Erie on Wednesday January, 23 for a mid-week game. We look forward to seeing you this weekend down at the Dow…
Garret Ross named the OHL player of the week:
The Ontario Hockey League announced that Saginaw Spirit Captain, Garret Ross was named the OHL player of the week for the week ending January, 13 on their website www.ontariohockeyleague.com
today. Ross beat out Nick Cousins of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Connor Brown of the Erie Otters; as he recorded seven points in three games, including three goals and four assists, to go along with a plus/minus rating of plus~2 during the past week. It's been a bittersweet week for the Dearborn, Mi native who was recently named Saginaw's team captain after watching his best friend and room mate, Vincent Trocheck get traded to the Plymouth Whalers after winning a Gold Medal for Team USA at the IIHF World Jr. Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia....