WINDSOR, Ont. - The Barrie Colts may have fresh legs heading into Game 1 of the Ontario Hockey League final, but the Windsor Spitfires are riding a wave of momentum.
When the best-of-seven final opens Tuesday in Barrie, the Spitfires will be playing on just one day of rest following an unlikely comeback in the Western Conference championship against the Kitchener Rangers.
Windsor's season appeared to be over after Kitchener opened the series with three straight wins. But as they showed last spring at the Memorial Cup, the Spitfires can never be counted out. Windsor stormed back to win four games in six days, including the series-clinching Game 7 on Sunday.
It was just the third time an OHL team has rallied from a 3-0 playoff series deficit and the first time it's happened beyond the first round.
"We made it very hard on ourselves early in the series against the Rangers," said Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner. "You have to give our players a ton of credit - they never give up or feel that they are out of a game, let alone a series."
Last May in Rimouski, the Spitfires became the first team ever to win the Memorial Cup after dropping the first two games of the tournament. They also needed four straight wins to capture the title.
"We just have a collection of unbelievable players who trust each other," said Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel. "They keep getting the job done and know that nothing is out of their realm."
The Western Hockey League final also kicks off this week in Calgary with the Hitmen hosting the Tri-City Americans in Game 1 on Friday. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League matchup was finalized Monday night when the Saint John Sea Dogs eliminated the Victoriaville Tigres. The Sea Dogs will face the Moncton Wildcats in the league final.
While the Spitfires dug themselves a hole in the Kitchener series, they were able to rely on previous experience to dig themselves out.
"We have players who have won MVP awards, OHL championships, world junior championship gold medals, world under-18 gold medals and obviously the Memorial Cup last year," Boughner said. "I think our experience paid off in the end against the Rangers.
"I think the key to the series was our not getting too rattled."
The current Spitfires lineup features 12 players who were on the Memorial Cup-winning squad last spring. They also have two other players, Marc Cantin and Stephen Johnson, who played in the 2008 tournament while members of the Belleville Bulls.
They'll try to become just the first team since 1995 to win back-to-back Memorial Cup titles.
The OHL final pits the top team in the East against the top team in the West, with the Colts holding the title as the top overall squad in the regular season with a 57-9-0-2 record. Windsor was 50-12-1-5 this season.
Unlike the Spitfires, they have cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs, posting a sparkling 12-1 record.
"Probably since the (trade) deadline, I think fans of the league were hoping this (series) would happen," Colts coach Marty Williamson said Monday on the OHL website. "We know that if you want to try to be the best then you've got to beat the best - and that's what they are."
The Colts enter the series on nearly a week of rest after eliminating the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors last Wednesday.
"We've had a couple of days off now and we just want to get back at it," Colts captain Stefan Della Rovere said on the OHL website. "A lot of us in the room haven't been this far in the playoffs before. We're excited to get our feet wet and get into it."
Meanwhile, Boughner acknowledged that his players wouldn't have much time to catch their breath.
"Sure, it is a quick turnaround in a short period of time before we start playing Barrie and we have a lot of work to do before then," he said. "But we have everything we need, game tapes and scouting reports, to compete right from the start."
Windsor forward Eric Wellwood says his team knows what it takes to win.
"I just think that we have a dressing room full of winners and no one was going to quit," Wellwood said of how the team performed in the Kitchener series. "We weren't ready to go home and we still aren't."
According to Cantin, the Spitfires buckled but didn't break under the pressure.
"We were really feeling the pressure after losing the first three games," he said. "But I felt that we only had to win one game to get things rolling and that is how it worked out.
"There comes a point where you can't write up plays anymore, it all comes down to heart and how bad you want to win."
The Western Hockey League final also matches the top two playoff seeds.
Calgary is back in the final for the second time in as many years and will be looking to erase the memories of a loss to Kelowna last spring. The Hitmen were tops in the regular season with a 52-17-1-2 record and survived a first-round scare after falling behind Moose Jaw 3-1.
Hitmen forward Brandon Kozun is the playoff scoring leader with 26 points.
He's followed closely by two Tri-City players - Brendan Shinnimin has 22 points while Kruise Reddick has 21. The Americans have also received solid goaltending from Drew Owsley, who has a 2.14 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in the post-season.
Tri-City is playing in the league's championship series for the first time in its 22-year history.