Soo Greyhounds are in first place in the West Division — and just three points back of the Kitchener Rangers for first overall in the Western Conference — with the Ontario Hockey League on the Christmas break. And while the Windsor Spitfires are at the bottom of the Western stage, they are within clear range of the eighth and final playoff spot.
It has been a surprisingly good run for the Greyhounds through the first half of the 2023-2024 OHL season. With 47 points from a record of 22-8-3, the Greyhounds have gone up and on from an utterly disappointing 2022-2023 season in which they missed the Western Conference playoffs by winning just 20 of 68 games while picking up points in 15 other contests from overtime defeats.
But veteran head coach John Dean — who many fans in Hound Town wanted fired after last season — has managed to right what was wrong from ’22-23 to ’23-24 and despite goal-tending that is average at best, the Red and White of Sault Ste. Marie is looking better than what many expected thus far this season.
In particular, a trio of defensemen have been difference makers for the Greyhounds. Attu Karki has 16 goals, 14 assists, 30 points and is third on the Greyhound scoring chart. Also putting up big offensive numbers from the defense position have been Krill Kudryavstev with four goals, 23 assists, 27 points and Andrew Gibson with 5-18-23 totals. All three are National Hockey League draft picks, Karki by the Vegas Knights, Kudryavstev by the Vancouver Canucks and Gibson by the Detroit Red Wings.
Besides the three star defensemen, several forwards are also putting up big points. Jack Beck has 11 goals, 30 assists, 41 points followed by Marco Mignosa with 12-22-34 statistics, Owen Allard with 14-16-30 totals, Bryce McConnell-Barker with 12-18-30 numbers and Justin Cloutier at 15-12-27.
Behind the Greyhounds among the five teams of the West Division are the Saginaw Spirit with 41 points down to the Flint Firebirds with 29, the Sarnia Sting with 25 and the aforementioned Windsor Spitfires with 21.
Regardless of West Division or Midwest Division, the top eight teams in the combined 10 member Western Conference make the playoffs. And as of now its a scrambled Western sandwich in the bottom half of the Conference.
Owen Sound Attack is the no. 6 seed with 33 points followed by the Erie Otters with 32, Flint with 29, Sarnia with 25 and Windsor with 21.
Which brings us to no. 8 Flint and no. 10 Windsor, who are scheduled to face off against one another no less than five times in the 2024 segment of the season. And those five matchups could go a long way towards deciding playoff spots for both Flint and Windsor.
The Firebirds headed into the Christmas break with a record of 0-5-1 over their last six games. Meanwhile, But the Spitfires have a record of 6-4-0 under interim head coach Casey Torres, including a 6-3 win over the Firebirds. Torres took over from first-year head coach Jerrod Smith who was fired after the Spitfires sputtered to a 4-16-1 record through the first 21 games of this season.
Looking ahead, the five remaining matches between Flint and Windsor loom large. The series of showdowns begins on January 3 and the others follow on February 17, February 29, March 1 and March 16. Notably, the last four matches between the Firebirds and Spitfires will be less than 30 days apart.
The remaining games between Flint and Windsor loom as a playoff atmosphere before said playoffs even begin.
As Windsor has gained some momentum in the 10 games since Torres took over, the Spitfires interim bench boss said a lot more needs to be done when play resumes after Christmas. The Spitfires have not lost back to back games since Torres took over from Smith as head coach — but Windsor has also won two in a row just once during that span.
“The season can be a grind and it has been a tough first half — and especially the first half of the first half — for us,” Torres relayed to Postmedia. “The last 10 games have been better … but we have to string some wins together in the second half of the season.”
Offensively, two players are closing in on 20 goals for the Spitfires when play resumes after the Christmas break as Liam Greentree and Oliver Peer have both tallied 19 times to date.
Defensively, Windsor has improved considerably since Torres took over as head coach. In the 21 games with Smith at the helm, the Spitfires gave up 125 goals in 21 games for a goals against average of 5.95. By comparison, in the 10 games with Torres as the bench boss, the Spitfires have given up 32 goals for a goals against average of 3.20.