FEATURE STORY: Spirit’s strong play anchored by ‘overall group effort’
By: Cory Butzin, Digital Content Provider
SAGINAW, Mich. – These Saginaw Spirit are turning some heads.
Youth has been consistently used to describe the 2017-18 version of the Spirit, and, while that still holds true, they’ve come to be described in another way over the last month — exciting.
In the month of November, Saginaw caught fire playing strong defense and putting together an electric offensive game becoming one of the hottest teams in the Ontario Hockey League.
“When we play together as a team and do what we do best, that’s when we’ve had success,” Spirit coach Troy Smith said.
What they do best is playing an up-tempo, fast-paced game that pushes the action and keeps the opposition on their heels. Saginaw started playing that way Nov. 1 and came away with a 5-3 win over rival Flint. And they kept it up winning at London for the first time since 2014.
The Spirit strung together wins against Erie, Owen Sound, North Bay and Kingston, while putting together a seven-game winning streak at The Dow Event Center and five-game winning streak overall.
A late loss to Eastern Conference-leading Hamilton ended the streaks capping off a month that saw the Spirit put together an 8-2-1-0 record moving within a game of fourth place overall in the grueling Western Conference.
And Saginaw got December started off on a high note overcoming a 6-0 deficit to take down division rival Sarnia, which was the No. 1-ranked team in the entire Canadian Hockey League at the time.
“I think we have good systems in place from Coach Smith,” Spirit captain Keaton Middleton said. “We’re big on trust and trusting where your teammates are going to be. We all know what’s going to happen and what the next play’s going to be, then you’re on the right spot and have a chance to make a play.”
Players up and down the lineup have been making plays for Saginaw.
Veteran Cole Coskey has been lighting the lamp at a blistering pace scoring 15 goals in 27 games, already besting last season’s 10 tallies in 66 contests. And he’s been joined by rookie and 2016 top pick Blade Jenkins who tallied nine goals and five assists in November to be named the OHL Rookie of the Month.
“It’s really been an overall group effort,” Smith said. “We’ve been scoring up and down the lineup. On any given night, we’ve had different guys contribute.”
NHL Draft eligible forward Damien Giroux has played a strong two-way game recording 24 points, while maintaining a plus-6 rating, while overage rearguard Marcus Crawford has climbed the organization’s all-time leaders list recording his 100th career assist.
Anchoring the whole thing has been overage goalie and New Jersey Devils prospect Evan Cormier who is on pace to have a career year with a 2.91 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
If the season ended today, his GAA would set a new Spirit franchise record.
“I think the fact that we’ve had success over the last little while here gives them a boost of confidence,” Smith said. “They know that if they do it and they have trust that their teammates are going to do the same thing, then we can have success together.”
While a tough schedule ushers Saginaw into the Holidays, their performance in November positioned them high enough in the standings to make a push in the second half, but, more importantly, it gave the Spirit confidence to go toe-to-toe with some of the best and come out on top.
“That’s what we’re planning to do,” Middleton said.
“When we work hard and execute our game plan, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”