It was a one-sided season series between the Saginaw Spirit and the Flint Firebirds over the course of the 2018-2019 Ontario Hockey League campaign. But the rivalry between the mid Michigan counterparts figures to intensify come the 2019-2020 OHL season.
To be sure, Saginaw was the much-better team than Flint in 2018-2019.
For starters, the Spirit swept the eight-game regular-season series with the Firebirds by winning all eight match-ups. Then there is the fact that Saginaw finished in second place in the Western Conference with 96 points from a record of 45-17-6 while Flint was last with 38 points from a record of 16-46-6.
But it is worth noting that after having a record of 3-29-2 through the first 34 games of the 2018-2019 term, Flint showed significant improvement with a 13-17-4 mark over the second half of the season.
And as Saginaw should be a Western Conference contender again in 2019-2020, Flint is seemingly poised to move up the standings ladder.
In fact, 2019-2020 could be the first time that the nearby rivals both have winning records in the same season — and the makings of a big-time rivalry.
Since Flint came into being from the relocated Plymouth Whalers in 2015, the Firebirds have had only one winning season while missing the playoffs the other three years.
And in that same time span, Saginaw has had a winning record only once in four years — last season — while missing out on the playoffs one time and finishing in eighth place the other two times.
But there is reason to believe that both teams are going to be forces to reckon with in 2019-2020 and really enhance the mid Michigan rivalry.
Saginaw is a mere 38 exits north of Flint along Michigan’s Interstate 75 highway. Historically, the two towns had a fierce rivalry during the minor pro, International Hockey League days of the Saginaw Gears and Flint Generals.
And that sort of sizzle could really spark up in 2019-2020 if both OHL teams play to potential.
It is more of a given that Saginaw will again ice a really good team in 2019-2020. Less certain is Flint, given its last-place finish of 2018-2019.
Still, the stars seem aligned for both teams to be among the top five in the 10-member Western Conference in 2019-2020.
Saginaw can return a cradle of seasoned talent led by forwards such as Damien Giroux, Blade Jenkins, Nick Porco, Camaryn Baber and Cole Perfetti and high-scoring defenseman Bode (Born To Be) Wilde.
And Flint has an emerging cast of high-end talent led by forwards Ty Dellandrea, Ethan Keppen, Cody Morgan and Evan Vierling and defensemen Dennis Busby and Vladislav Kolyachonok. Additionally, if 35-goal scorer Jake Durham returns as an overage in 2019-2020, the Flint forward lines will have a bonus dimension to it.
Meanwhile, the rivalry between the two gritty hockey towns took on some added spice recently when Flint hired 47-year old Ryan Kuwabara as its new associate coach under 29-year old Eric Wellwood, who will begin his first full season as the Firebirds bench boss in 2019-2020.
The highly-regarded Kuwabara spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach in Saginaw and his move 38 miles south to Flint already has tongues wagging among fans in the nearby OHL towns.
Whether Kuwabara’s departure from Saginaw was amicable or not, his acquisition by Flint gives the Firebirds a highly-intelligent hockey mind to be part of the staff under Wellwood, who is considered a rising coaching star in the OHL ranks.
Both teams do have question marks at this stage of the summer season.
For example, will standout goalie Ivan Prosvetov return to Saginaw for a second season after signing a National Hockey League contract with the Arizona Coyotes? Should Prosvetov return as an overage (1999 birth date) player in Saginaw, he could well be the best goalie in the Western Conference.
Meantime, over in Flint, can 2001 birth-year goalie Luke Cavallin take the reins as the no. 1 guy in what will be his third OHL season and give the Firebirds some much-needed, consistent net-minding?
What also remains to be seen is whether Saginaw head coach Chris Lazary will make proper use of skilled players such as aforementioned forwards Blade Jenkins and Nick Porco and give the two NHL draft picks the opportunity for breakout terms in 2019-2020.
Lazary was given a lot of talent to work with by Saginaw general manager Dave Drinkill in 2018-2019 and the Spirit made it all the way to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual OHL champion Guelph Storm. But there are many within the circle of the OHL who are not sold on Lazary as a high-end coach.
At any rate, the heat and humidity of this summer may just be a prelude to the hockey fire pit that could define the Saginaw-Flint rivalry come the 2019-2020 OHL season.