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For much of the calendar year they have been the best team in the country so it’s appropriate that the Hamilton Bulldogs are now heading to the Memorial Cup.

The Bulldogs won Game 7 of a riveting Ontario Hockey League final, with a convincing 6-1 victory over the talented and resilient Windsor Spitfires Wednesday night, sending a roaring audience of 11,779 home happy.

It was bedlam on the ice and in the stands as the final buzzer went and the pyrotechnics began. After sweeping the three previous series, this was the first time Hamilton had won a clinching game at home.

When Jan Mysak banged the puck into an open net off a tremendous rush and pass by Hamilton native Arber Xhekaj with seven minutes to go to make it 4-0, the raucous audience exploded, shaking the media gondola high above the ice.

It was the biggest crowd at FirstOntario Centre in the Bulldogs’ six-season history in Hamilton. The all-time high was 12,587 in March for the outdoor game at Tim Hortons Field the night after the NHL’s Heritage Classic.

It was also the largest crowd for a game in the league’s championship final series in the “modern era,” which began in 1980 when it was rebranded as the OHL.

The win marks Hamilton’s second trip to the national junior final in four years.

Avery Hayes, drafted in 2018 — the spring the Bulldogs won their previous OHL title — had a hat-trick and Mason McTavish scored twice. Alex Christopoulos scored for the quick-strike Spitfires just 37 seconds after Mysak’s goal to cut into Marco Costantini’s shutout bid. Hayes and McTavish both scored empty-net goals to trigger a vocal party in the stands.

Hamilton was able to neutralize the Spitfires’ brilliant duo of league MVP Wyatt Johnston and linemate Will Cuylle, the Windsor captain, who for most of the series controlled play on the ice and incited their teammates.

The Spitfires had stayed alive with a comeback 5-2 win on Monday night to force the ultimate rubber match and both teams responded with fast, disciplined hockey.

The Bulldogs still haven’t lost two games in a row since the first week of December. They won their last 15 regular-season games, and another 12 straight playoff games before Windsor beat them in overtime in the opening game of the OHL final. That win, Spitfire coach Marc Savard has said, gave his side confidence against the country’s number-one ranked junior team.

Because of pandemic-related scheduling that restricted most play to opponents inside the conference, the two teams did not meet during the regular season. Entering the league final, Hamilton, which had franchise records of 51 wins and 107 points to win the OHL East going away, was favoured over Windsor, which had a dozen fewer points in winning the West.

But lost in the wake of the Bulldogs’ steamrolling sprint that began after the multitalented McTavish and over-age defenceman Xhekaj arrived at January’s trade deadline was the scorching streak the Spitfires were mounting in the West. After a lukewarm start they finished the regular season on fire with only nine regulation-time losses in their final 48 games.

The Bulldogs went up 1-0 just two minutes in when McTavish scored his 15th of the playoffs and fifth of the series, quickly converting a nice feed from Patrick Thomas.

But the Spitfires were not a team that gets discouraged easily — or at all. They gave up the opening goal in five of the seven games and stayed close in all of them, including the ones they lost. Even the deciding match was tight until well into the third period. And before meeting Hamilton, the Spitfires trailed the West Conference final against Flint three games to two, won Game 6 in overtime and took the series in seven.

Windsor counterattacked well and withstood much of the Bulldogs’ fierce pressure by rarely giving up the back-breaking goal (until Wednesday’s third period) leaning on previously unheralded goaltender Mathias Onuska, and forechecking the Bulldogs’ vaunted defence, which was missing captain Colton Kammerer for the entire series.

But Hamilton made it 2-0 with seven minutes remaining in the middle frame when Hayes deflected Xhekaj’s shot past Onuska, a goal that was allowed to stand after a league review confirmed it wasn’t a high stick. But Spitfire coach Marc Savard immediately challenged the call, claiming goaltender interference, but that was overruled. Hayes had 14 goals over the playoffs and six in the final series. He recorded at least one point in all 16 playoff games he played.

Hamilton’s big line made it 3-0 on Hayes’ second goal of the game six minutes into the third period, with assists from McTavish and Logan Morrison, who tied with Hayes for the final series scoring lead at 14 points.

The Bulldogs captured their second league title since Michael Andlauer bought the Belleville Bulls and moved them to Hamilton to replace the AHL Bulldogs in the spring of 2015. They beat the favoured Soo Greyhounds in six games to win the 2018 OHL championship and went on to finish third in the Memorial Cup Tournament in Regina.

The Spitfires moved from Jr. A to major junior in 1975 and won the OHL title in 1988, 2009 and 2010, winning the Memorial Cup the latter two years. They were also Memorial Cup Champions when they hosted the national tournament in 2018.

Hamilton faces the host Saint John Sea Dogs in the Memorial Tournament opener in New Brunswick on Monday night.

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