It has been a special year for the Saginaw Spirit and they’re hoping it continues.
Winning the Ontario Hockey League’s West Division title in the regular season is just the start and the team is looking ahead to a series with a division rival in round two of the playoffs.
The Spirit and Soo Greyhounds will open action on Friday night at the Dow Event Center in Saginaw and the Spirit will look to a number of veterans added ahead of the trade deadline to be a difference.
Prior to the OHL trade deadline, the team acquired forward Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod in separate deals with the Mississauga Steelheads and the pair have been welcomed additions to the team.
“The first thing they’ve done for our franchise is they’ve provided us with recognition,” Spirit coach Chris Lazary said. “People look at our franchise and say, ‘They’re for real.’ Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod were willing to waive no-trade clauses and move to Saginaw, Michigan in their final year of junior. That says something about our organization, and it says something about them as people. They’re unbelievable kids. The way they interact with their teammates, the leadership they provide, how they’ve fit into a group that was already tight and made us tighter, it’s been cool to watch as a coach.”
A pair of local players have also had strong impacts for the Spirit this season.
Nick Porco finished the regular season with 20 goals and 36 points in 67 games and Lazary spoke of how the sophomore forward is “so valuable to our club” and feels the former first round pick of the club “doesn’t get enough recognition around the league.”
“Nick Porco is an elite talent,” Lazary added. “He’s unbelievable with his speed and he’s grown so much in his game making plays off the rush and being a playmaker and distributor. It’s grown leaps and bounds and it’s only going to get better. That’s going to elevate him as he moves forward into his career. He’s an unbelievable kid. He’s a winner and he works extremely hard every day in practice. He battles. You win with kids like Nick Porco.”
Camaryn Baber finished the regular season with eight goals and 21 points in 48 games and had 11 points in his last 11 games prior to playoff action. In the opening round, Baber added a goal and two assists in Saginaw’s four-game sweep of the Sarnia Sting.
“At the start if the year he probably didn’t get the opportunities he needed,” Lazary said. “Lately, he’s been our undercover MVP with his play. He’s been unbelievable in big games. His penalty kill details, his faceoffs, you put him on any line and he gets the job done. He’s the type of kid that if some team is really paying attention and you took him in the late rounds of the NHL draft, you’ll end up having a player that has a chance to play one day. He’s such a special talent and he’s only getting better.”
Tippett and McLeod weren’t the only key additions for the Spirit this season.
The team also went out and acquired overage defenceman Justin Murray from the Barrie Colts and the veteran blueliner received plenty of praise from his coach.
“It’s unbelievable that an NHL team hasn’t signed this kid already,” Lazary said. “He is a mix of old-school toughness – he’ll get into your body, his gaps are tight, he’ll play you hard and he’ll defend hard – but new-school with the way the game is going – he’ll make a ton of plays, he’ll bring pucks back and keep possession, up off the rush and a part of the offence, always coming down off the walls in the offensive zone.”
Both coaches don’t expect this to be an easy series.
“It’s going to be an extremely tough series,” Lazary said. “They’re one of the most dangerous teams in the league with the puck.”
“They have goaltending, they have defenders that can move the puck, and they have some of the best forwards in the league,” Lazary added. “It’s a dangerous opponent for us but I think we’re ready for it.”
Meanwhile, Greyhounds coach John Dean had a similar feel.
“We play pretty similar styles,” Dean said. “They (Saginaw) want to be a puck possession team and so do we. It’s going to be a fight for time and space and who wants the puck more.”
On the injury front for the Spirit, defenceman Caleb Everett remains out of the lineup and Lazary said it’s possible the blueliner could not see action again this season.
Forward Danny Katic could potentially get into the lineup for the series.
The 18-year-old was injured in a game in late-January and Lazary said this week that he could get into action against the Greyhounds and is almost assured of returning to the lineup in round three if the Spirit advance.
The team has also played an extended stretch without veteran forward Cole Coskey.
Coskey was injured by a hit from Sarnia Sting forward Jamieson Rees on Feb. 18 and hasn’t played since due to a broken jaw.
The 19-year-old had 31 goals and 62 points at the time of his injury.
Coskey saw a doctor on Wednesday and Lazary said Wednesday evening the veteran “should be ready to go.”