WINDSOR, Ont. - After a regular season filled with adversity, the Windsor Spitfires appear to be hitting their stride.
The defending Memorial Cup champions lost a whopping 140 man games to injuries this season and have yet to ice a full lineup in 2010. Not a single member of the team played all 68 games of the regular season.
Still, they managed to finish first in the Ontario Hockey League's Western Conference with a 50-12-1-5 record and have cruised into the second round of the playoffs following a four-game sweep of the Erie Otters.
Head coach Bob Boughner has spent the season juggling his lineup to compensate for missing players. In addition to injuries, he lost six of his top players to the world junior championship over the holidays and had to deal with suspensions late in the season.
"Our guys like to compete and battle through adversity," Boughner said during an interview this week. "We usually find a way to win."
Even while outscoring the Otters 21-10 this past week, the Spitfires were without 34-goal scorer Greg Nemisz. The 2008 first-round pick of the Calgary Flames missed the last two weeks of the regular season and the four playoff games with a cut to his upper leg that required 40 stitches.
Nemisz was one of the six Spitfires who played in the world junior tournament, along with Adam Henrique, Ryan Ellis, Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Richard Panik, who was later traded to the Belleville Bulls.
"We went 4-2 in games while we had all the guys away at the world juniors," said Boughner. "And we had to play some players out of their natural positions while we juggled the lineup here.
"We had a lot of guys step up their game while we had other players away," Boughner added. "I think it was a great learning experience for us as an organization."
Despite their manpower issues, Windsor scored an OHL-high 331 goals and featured six 30-goal scorers.
The Spitfires, who finished second only to the Barrie Colts in the overall standings, lost key players in the second half of the campaign due to suspensions.
Zack Kassian missed 20 games as a result of his hit on Barrie's Matt Kennedy and Henrique sat out five games following an incident against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Defenceman Marc Cantin also missed two contests.
Winning has become something of a tradition over the past two seasons in Windsor as earlier this month the Spitfires became just the second team in OHL history to post consecutive 50-win seasons.
Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel is quick to identify the reasons behind his team's success so far this season.
"It all comes down to the consistency of our players and the overall depth that we have throughout our lineup," Rychel said. "And Boogie (Boughner) and his staff turned in another great coaching performance this season."
The Spitfires have also had success at the draft table the past couple seasons.
"It's my belief that we have the hardest-working scouting staff in the entire league," said Rychel. "Sure, we have a lot of high-end talent in our lineup, but we also have people like Michael Whaley (13th round, 260th overall in 2009) and Saverio Posa (15th round, 307th overall in 2008) who have stepped up and performed well when needed."
With Nemisz likely back in the lineup when the Spitfires resume playoff action next week, Rychel likes his team's chances for another long post-season run this spring.
"We've been solid all year and when Nemo comes back we are going to become even better," he said. "I think our team is just as deep as we were last season, maybe even a little deeper now.
"We're excited and I think we are just getting warmed up now."