Sports

OHL This Week: Saginaw Spirit soaring after huge comeback

By Ryan Pyette, The London Free Press

Topics

Not long ago, if you tried to look at the ceiling in the Saginaw Spirit’s dressing room, your neck would ache.

“The roof used to go all the way up like a Home Depot,” new coach Troy Smith said. “But they closed that off and renovated the whole locker room area. They’ve done a tremendous job here.”

The serious air space above their heads is gone, but, on the ice, the sky-high Spirit have started to feel there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

Certainly not after they blew off the roof — this time figuratively — at their home rink with one of the more remarkable comebacks in OHL history Saturday.

They trailed Sarnia — the No.  1 ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League — 6-0 with a minute and a half left in the second period, yet still rallied to win in overtime.

That’s the beauty of junior hockey. There is plenty of emotion, and belief can fuel a lot of positive progress, while doubt can cause things to go completely off the rails.

And sometimes, it helps to be too young to consider the impossible.

“To be honest, I didn’t really say much,” Smith, the former Kitchener Rangers bench boss, said. “It was amazing. The momentum switched and it just went from there.”

A year ago, Smith was learning how to sell cars. He was out of hockey after a stint as a Bulldogs assistant in his Hamilton hometown.

But after the Spirit missed the playoffs and one-year coach Spencer Carbery jumped back to the pros, GM Dave Drinkill needed someone to become Saginaw’s ninth new chief during the last 16 seasons.

After a trademark slow start, the Spirit have reeled off eight wins in 10 games under Smith. They have gone from hoping for a post­season berth to thinking bigger.

“I was really excited to be here,” Smith said. “We have a group we’d like to have the opportunity to grow with and build up the Saginaw organization into a marquee franchise.

“Our kids have worked extremely hard and the ownership is fantastic and they deserve to have success here.”

The Spirit has never made it past the second round of the playoffs and have produced just one NHL first round pick: defenceman Matt Corrente with the Devils in 2006.

But they have managed to attract some promising talent lately, including former OHL fourth overall selection Blade Jenkins, who has regained his confidence and become a dangerous scorer.

“The credit for that has to go to Blade,” Smith said. “He realized he needed to change the way he played and he’s done that. He’s played more of a simple, power forward type role where he’s getting into the tough areas to score. Early on, he was on the perimeter and that’s been the biggest change.”

Cole Coskey, passed over in the last NHL draft, is now the team’s leading scorer.

“Not being picked was humbling for him,” Smith said. “He’s got a great amount of skill, skates well and he realizes he has to play more of a power forward type of game. If you play an honest game, your skills will naturally take over.”

The Spirit have one of the best veteran goaltenders in Evan Cormier, who sets the right example by hitting the gym the moment he rolls into the rink. They acquired under-rated over-ager Mason Kohn, an old Ranger with Smith, from Oshawa and he’s lit up the scoresheet since his arrival.

Leafs prospect Keaton Middleton, a Stratford native now in his fourth season with the Spirit, is the club’s conscience.

“When things are good, he’s been keeping the guys on chill,” Smith said, “and when things are bad, he keeps it positive. He’s a big, friendly kid and you need to see him in action.”

When Saginaw is up on a foe, but starts lugging the puck back into its own zone — not the way they want to play — Middleton will stand up on the bench to set them straight.

“It’s like he becomes Chris Farley (from Saturday Night Live lore),” Smith said. “He’ll be pointing down the ice and say real loud, ‘Boys, we’re going that way’. It’s amazing. I wish someone would video­tape it.”

The only thing better would be Middleton pointing up, which is where the Spirit hope to go in the standings, after that wild win over Sarnia.

rpyette@postmedia.com 

LOOK OUT FOR THIS GUY

Joseph Garreffa, forward/defence, Kitchener Rangers

Born: Aug. 9, 1999

Hometown: Toronto

Height: five-foot-six

Weight: 167 pounds.

Living the dream: The pint-sized blueshirt is lending a helping hand these days. He led the OHL last week with eight points — all assists — in three Kitchener comeback wins that kept the Rangers in first place in a watered-down Midwest Division. Those points came in two four-assist performances, both against leaky Owen Sound. He added one more assist in an 8-5 loss to Windsor Tuesday.

Story so far: He’ll do whatever is asked of him. In his rookie season, Garreffa bounced back and forth between forward and defence. Last year, he played mostly up front and scored 25 goals. These days, he’s been largely on the point, but still recording nearly a point a game.

The numbers: The former third-rounder has three four-point outings this season, and four in his three-year career. Despite his blue-line duties and small stature, he can loom large in the faceoff dot. He has won half of his 74 draws this year. As a rookie, he was a perfect 10 for 10 in that category.

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Barrie at Mississauga, Friday at 7 p.m.

The Colts are on the verge of welcoming back Russian star prospect Andrei Svechnikov, who had 10 goals in his first 10 games before wrist surgery. Is he back early enough to play on the Russian world junior team? That’s to be determined. The Colts still control the Central Division, but the IceDogs are making a push and someday, perhaps soon, the Steelheads will, too.

ON FIRE

Windsor captain Aaron Luchuk. The overager is leading the league in goal scoring and just racked up his second hat trick of the year Tuesday to ruin Kitchener’s Teddy Bear Toss night, even without an ill Logan Brown. The Spits leadership core has pushed the club to four wins in their past five games and they have the struggling Erie Otters on deck Thursday at home.

ICE COLD

The Steelheads. Everyone’s favourite pick to turn it around and win their division isn’t quite ready to make that charge yet. The Trout have been floundering, losers of six straight. They’ve been having trouble keeping the puck out of their net, giving up at least five goals in each of the six defeats.

NUMBERS GAME

12 The number of OHL players invited to Hockey Canada’s world junior selection camp in St. Catharines next week (nine forwards, two defencemen and one goaltender, Windsor’s Mike DiPietro). Of the 32 players invited, the Western league led the way with 13 invitees.

ROAD TO DALLAS

Aidan Dudas. The 10th pick in the 2016 OHL draft has more goals this season (14) than anyone picked before him. He’s second in points (31), behind only Guelph defenceman Ryan Merkley, the first overall selection among 2000-born players. The Parry Sound native isn’t big in stature, but he has been a consistent scorer at every level he’s played and nothing has changed in major junior.

SPEAKING OUT

"You cannot give those top-end teams a chance to eat you alive. You can not feed the wolf.”

67’s coach Andre Tourigny after falling 4-0 to Sault Ste. Marie (not Sudbury, the actual Wolves). The Greyhounds established a franchise record 14th straight win in the process.