A seventh game between Hamilton and Windsor is ‘exactly how an OHL final should be’

For the first time since it assembled for training camp in September, the No. 1-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League has spent the past 12 days staring down the kind of adversity that builds championship teams. What at one time was looking like a coronation for the Hamilton Bulldogs has morphed into a one-game battle for their playoff lives, with a berth in the Memorial Cup on the line.

And Bulldogs coach Jay McKee wouldn’t have it any other way. Even with his team facing a winner-take-all Game 7 against the Windsor Spitfires on Wednesday night at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre, McKee is looking at the experience as one to approach with fervour, not fear. “This is exactly how an OHL final should be,” McKee said. “It should be two great teams going at it with a very fine line between winning and losing.”

It has been all that and more. The first six games of this series have been entertaining and competitive, between two working-class cities with long histories in junior hockey. It has been a star-driven series that has featured excellent goaltending and two coaches who are former NHLers and undoubtedly will be standing behind big-league benches in the not-too-distant future. It also features one team that made it to the final while barely breaking a sweat against one that has had to pick itself up off the mat a number of times this season.

The Bulldogs went into these playoffs without a regulation loss in their final 15 games, then reeled off 12 straight wins in three consecutive playoff sweeps. The Spitfires, on the other hand, got out to a rather unimpressive 8-8-4 start to the season under rookie coach Marc Savard before going on a 36-9-3 heater the rest of the season. In the Western Conference final, the Spitfires faced a 3-2 deficit against the Flint Firebirds and were trailing in the third period of Game 6 before coming back to win the series in seven games. So the Spitfires are not terribly fazed by the thought of going into a building in Game 7 where the Bulldogs are 8-1 in the playoffs. Much of that comes from the confidence they have built through this series, the first time this season the two teams have met.

“It was a question we all had,” Savard said. “What are we up against here? But then we came in and won Game 1 in overtime and that gave our guys a ton of confidence and all of a sudden, we felt like we had an opportunity every night. We’re a really confident group here, but we always keep a level head and I have a lot of guys here who never give up.”

The Spitfires have outscored the Bulldogs 23-19 during this series, one that has been driven by the top players for both teams. For the Bulldogs, that has been the duo of Logan Morrison and Mason McTavish, which has gone hammer and tong all series long against the Spitfires’ star tandem of Wyatt Johnston and Will Cuylle. McTavish, the third overall pick of the 2021 draft who had played for eight teams in a calendar year when he joined the Bulldogs in November, has been a two-way beast down the middle. Morrison, an undrafted 19-year-old who has scored at least a point in 70 of 78 regular-season and playoff games this season, has four goals and 11 points in this series alone. Johnston may be the steal of the 2021 draft for the Dallas Stars at No. 23 and he has matched Morrison’s output with two goals and 11 points. Cuylle, a New York Rangers prospect, leads all players on both teams with six goals.

Morrison and Johnston have received some high praise in this series. TSN director of scouting Craig Button, who is handling the colour analyst duties for the series, has compared Morrison to former Boston Bruins standout David Krejci. Savard likens Johnston, who has led the OHL in both regular-season and playoff scoring, to a more legendary Bruin. “I had the honour of playing with (Patrice) Bergeron and there are a lot of comparisons there,” Savard said. “Even Brayden Point, there’s a lot of that there, too. Wyatt has a bright future.”

In the immediate future, however, there is a Game 7 showdown that will decide which team is headed to Saint John, N.B., for the Memorial Cup, which gets underway Monday. And they’ll do it in front of a Hamilton crowd that has hopped on the playoff bandwagon, averaging almost 6,000 fans a game for the first three games in the final.

“The way the playoffs have gone, with us sweeping the first three rounds, we haven’t had the opportunity to win a round at home,” McKee said. “To have an opportunity to win a championship on home ice in a Game 7 scenario, there’s no better stage for these kids.”

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