The Saginaw Spirit (34-14-2-2) sent a strong message to the rest of the Ontario Hockey League with its fourth straight win, proving they deserve to be mentioned among the league's elite following a decisive 6-3 victory over the first place London Knights (37-8-5-1) in front of 5,476 at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw tonight.
Spirit head coach Chris Lazary is 23-5-1-1 since taking over behind the bench back on Nov. 21, however, after coming up short in some close losses to Niagara, London, Ottawa, and Guelph in that span, Lazary had yet to achieve that one signature victory against an elite OHL program; until tonight's win over the Knights.
“We were due,” Lazary said. “We've laid some eggs in some big games this year and we own that in the (dressing) room. I'm just so proud of our guys, with their approach at this morning's skate and then their battle level, and just the little things throughout the game. That was a playoff-type game against the best team in the league, and we're right there, so it's good.”
The Spirit jumped out to an early lead in the opening frame when captain Damien Giroux (21) banged home a rebound off a D.J. Busdeker shot for a 1-0 lead at 14:07 of the first period, while Spirit defenseman Reagan O'Grady (7) followed with an unassisted 'highlight-reel' goal just 46-seconds later to give Saginaw a 2-0 lead at the 14:53 mark.
London answered later in the period when the Knights' top point producer Kevin Hancock (40) scored to cut the Spirit lead to 2-1 at 16:51 of the first period.
Saginaw extended its lead in the final seconds of the first when Brady Gilmour intercepted a London breakout pass just inside the London blue line and quickly found Owen Tippett (23) in the high slot, as the Spirit sniper proceeded to pick apart London goal tender Jordan Kooy with a surgically precise snapshot into the top corner of the net for a 3-1 Spirit lead at 19:49 of the first period.
“I was honestly going back, tracking back,” Tippett said of the play. “And Gilly (Gilmour) made a nice play to break up the pass. He found me in the high slot and I shot (the puck into the) top corner.”
The Knights would answer early in the middle frame when London forward Liam Foudy (29) cut the Saginaw lead to 3-2 just :47 seconds into the second period, but the Spirit would respond later in the period when Gilmour (10) scored with assists coming from Cole Perfetti and Mason Millman for a 4-2 Spirit lead at the 16:39 mark.
The Spirit stretched the lead back to 3-goals midway through the final frame when Giroux (22) scored his second of the night for a 5-2 lead at 10:08 of the third period.
A pair of Saginaw penalties late in the final frame led to a 5 on 3 man-advantage for the Knights with just under 6-minutes to play, prompting London head coach (former NHL star) Dale Hunter to pull Kooy for the extra attacker, creating a 6 on 3 man-advantage.
The move paid off for Hunter when London defenseman Alec Regula (8) scored the power play goal, cutting the Spirit lead to 5-3 at 14:29 of the third.
Just 47-seconds later Tippett (24) was awarded a penalty shot after being hooked from behind on a breakaway, setting up a dramatic moment for the Florida Panthers prospect, who would seal the deal for the Spirit, beating Kooy glove low for a 6-3 lead at 15:16 of the final period.
Kooy managed to stop 38 of the 43 shots he would face in net for London, while Spirit goal tender Ivan Prosvetov continues to shine between the pipes for Saginaw, turning away 55 of the 58 shots he saw, as the two teams combined for 102 shots on goal tonight.
“It was a hundred shot hockey game,” Lazary noted. “So, I think both goalies were outstanding. Ivan, obviously, he's elite. Like, he's a special talent, he's a special kid and he's just dialed (in) right now. A.J. Walczak does a phenomenal job with our goal tenders. Arizona (Coyotes goalie coaches) were in this week, working with him as well and you know, we're lucky to have him. He's the best goalie in the league and he gives us a chance every night.”
The Spirit will now prepare to host the Flint Firebirds mid-week for the final installment of the 2019 Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup Series with the puck set to drop at 7:05 pm at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw Wednesday night.
Video of Spirit forward Owen Tippett scoring a penalty shot goal against London tonight: