After four years, two Western Conference Finals defeats, one OHL Championship Series loss, the Erie Otters came the closest they’ve ever come from the pinnacle of Junior hockey, the Memorial Cup, but couldn’t get there once again.
A sold out crowd of 6,500 fans filled the WFCU Centre in Windsor to the rafters, they rang cowbells, blew noisemakers, and whistles and screamed as loud as they could. The vast majority were hometown Windsor Spitfires fans, excited to see their team go 3-0 in the tournament and host the Erie Otters in the finals - a conference rival and the team that they saw in the first game of the season, back in late September.
There were Erie Otters fans here, enough to be noticed during the team introductions, and they had to struggle to be heard during the game. The Otters were playing their typical quick change game for the first period. Up one end, change, down one end, change. No one player is on the ice for very long, keeping the legs fresh. The Spitfires were coming in hard and looking for quality passes but Erik Cernak and the rest of the Otters defence kept them at bay. The Spitfires would slip through, occasionally, getting some good chances. Toronto Maple Leafs pick Jeremy Bracco had two, once alone and another with a good series of passes between him and the Blackhawks Graham Knott.
The Otters two power lines of Alex DeBrincat - Dylan Strome - Warren Foegele and Taylor Raddysh - Anthony Cirelli - Kyle Maskimovich were firing on all cylinders. Plenty of multi-rebound scrums in front of the Spitfires net, but Michael DiPietro kept them all out.
Windsor’s possession starts to inch up and up but it seems as if it’s all going to be undone after Cole Purboo is called for high sticking Erik Cernak. The Otters powerplay has been dominant this tournament and those PP goals are what killed the Saint John Sea Dogs. The Spitfires studied their opponent and kept the Otters from getting quality chances - including an amazing poke check from Mikhail Sergachev to keep a pass getting from to a wide open Alex DeBrincat.
The Windsor Spitfires kill the penalty and two minutes later they get a power play opportunity of their own, as Erie’s Kyle Petit is called for tripping. The Spitfires put the pressure on and in a scramble in front of the net, Jeremy Bracco opens the scoring in the final game just 15 seconds into the power play:
The crowd erupted into ear shattering screams of joy. This is a big goal as the team that has scored first in this tournament is undefeated.
It’s short lived as just 45 seconds later Dylan Strome gets a pass from Darren Raddysh and pots one for Erie. The game is back to being tied.
The Spitfires, however, are not worried. We spend most of the rest of the first period in the Otters end, every player is pitching in to every position as well. When Spits goalie Michael DiPietro goes down to block a shot but the shooter goes high, Sean DAy reaches in and catches the shot with this hand.
By the time the whistle blows we’ve seen the best hockey played in this entire tournament.
The Second period began with an all Lightning Otters lines, Raddysh, Cirelli, and Cernak on the ice. The play is just as quick and back and forth as the first period. The Spitfires get a puck over the glass penalty, and the Otters look to have scored as Warren Foegele deflects a Kyle Maskimovich shot into the Windsor net. It’s reviewed and deemed good much to the dismay of the local fans.
Once again the lead doesn’t last long, when Logan Stanley scores less than one minute later to bring both teams to two goals each.
The tight game continues at the top pace it’s been so far. Windsor’s Luke Boka gets a break away, denied. Taylor Raddysh shoots. Denied.
Otters defenceman takes a shot from the point. It goes in off a Spitfires stick and gives the Otters a 3-2 lead:
It took longer than usual to tie this game, the Spitfires benefited from TJ Fergus getting called for holding forty seconds after he scored, and then the Spitfires power play went 2/2 as Graham Knott scored to tie the game:
Then just as Fergus did, Knott was called for slashing and went to the box shortly after scoring. The Otters power play was dangerous for only 25 seconds as Erie’s Kyle Petit was called for Interference. The Windsor power play was excellent and then Alex DeBrincat was called for holding and gave Windsor a 5 on 3 power play. The Spits come close but don’t score on the 5 on 3 - the Otters cleared the zone well - and the second period ended 3-3, but the Spitfires began the third period with :22 remaining in DeBrincat’s penalty.
The third period conitnues what we’ve seen from the first two. The Spitfires don’t score on their remaining PP time, but do get a few chances. A Minute in Spitfires player Julius Nattinen is given a delay of game penalty for a face off violation. The Otters can’t take advantage of the penalty and go 1-4 on the power play. The PP got the Otters here vs Saint John, but the Spitfires studied and worke don their penalty kill. The Otters get a burst of five shots on DiPietro but he stonewalls them.
Jeremy Bracco brings the puck into the Otters end and gets a pass out of the corner to Aaron Luchuk who scores the fourth goal of the game:
The fourth goal would stand for the rest of the game. The Erie Otters would win face offs, they’d out shoot the spitfires, they would get chance, after chance, after chance. The game would become more physical as it went on. Scrums increased, helmets were lost, star players come close to blows:
Michael DiPietro would keep the Windsor Spitfires alive as he had all tournament. He turned away eleven shots in the final period, thirty-two total in the entire game. The Otters defense would only allow the Spitfire five shots in the final frame, but all it took was a single bad turnover to cost them the one thing they’d been chasing these past few years.
It’s hard to remember these players are teenagers. For some it’s the highest they’ll ever get in their hockey careers. Emotions run high in times like these, but there are still obligations.
Tayor Raddysh, finishing with eleven points, five goals and six assists, tied for the tournament lead. Comes out to speak with the assembled reporters, the ones who stayed off the ice while the Spitfires celebrated. He talks about how great it was to play with his brother, to have him there as he began his junior hockey career. Raddysh will return to OHL next season, but being such a high scoring, highly valued player, he may not be in Erie long, if he isn’t traded in the off season. A team on the verge of winning will pay highly and a team in Erie’s position will have to accept.
Anthony Cirelli, the loss not made any better by having won the Memorial Cup in 2015, talks about how quickly he was made one of the gang after he joined the Otters mid season. How much this would have meant to his team mates, how hard they worked and how much disappointment they faced. He is eligible for an over age season, but his most likely destination next season is Syracuse.
Erik Cernak didn’t come out to talk about the loss. Previously in the tournament he had nothing but great things to say about his team mates. Another Lightning prospect that should be a member of the Crunch next season, he’ll make fans in a whole other city with his physicality and strong play at the point and in front of his own net.
I’ve been watching from a far for years. This was my first chance to see how fast the gauntlet of emotions is run in such a small span of time. The Otters were on top of the world two days ago, defeating the Saint John Sea Dogs in the semi-final. Grins from ear to ear. Now, in this small moment of their lives, it all feels as if it wasn’t worth it, as if it’s all one big failure.
It wasn’t. They’ll realize this. They will look back on this game as one of the closest and hardest they’ve played. They’ll remember those teammates, remember those games and those terrible blonde dye jobs.
For now though, they hurt, more than this game has made them hurt before.