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It will be the last game they play in Hamilton but they don’t want — desperately don’t want — it to be the last time they play together as a team.

Eight months and 66 victories after their opening game and five months after the trade deadline deals which separated them like church and state from the rest of the Ontario Hockey League East, it comes down to a single game for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

And, they have to win it or all of this eye-candy magic, the flowing entertaining style, the franchise record-setting wins, will come to an abrupt halt.

That is the essence of a Game 7. One team’s brilliant season will end painfully Wednesday night at FirstOntario Centre, the other’s will extend joyfully into next week’s Memorial Cup Tournament in Saint John, N.B.

After the resilient OHL West champion Windsor Spitfires’ 5-2 victory in Game 6 on the shores of the St. Clair River Monday, the best-of-seven OHL Championship Series is deadlocked at threes. And local interest in the Bulldogs hasn’t been this intense since the last time they had a chance to win the OHL final at home. Which they did, with a 5-4 victory over the favoured Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in Game 6, four years ago.

Hamilton's Logan Morrison celebrates a first period goal in game 6 of the OHL finals between the Windsor Spitfires and the Hamilton Bulldogs at the WFCU Centre, on Monday.
Hamilton’s Logan Morrison celebrates a first period goal in game 6 of the OHL finals between the Windsor Spitfires and the Hamilton Bulldogs at the WFCU Centre, on Monday.Dax Melmer, Windsor Star

On that mid-May evening there were 8,600 roaring folks at FirstOntario Centre and the total could, and should, top that Wednesday (7 p.m., tickets $25-34 at ticketmaster.ca). By Tuesday afternoon, the lower bowl’s roughly 8,000 seats were almost gone and the upper bowl was opened for sales.

After last year’s pandemic-cancelled OHL season stripped Bulldogs fans of the chance to watch their team mature toward a future championship run, it took a while for this group to attracter wider attention. But, they’ve certainly got that now.

They were good from the start with Logan Morrison and Avery Hayes, both selected in the draft of 2018 — the year each turned 16 — blossoming into 19-year-old stars. They were talented and deep and kept adding talent and depth, culminating in January’s trade deadline when general manager Steve Staios brought fierce defenceman Arber Xhekaj back to his hometown for his final year of junior hockey, and grabbed Peterborough Petes’ forward Mason McTavish, who was selected third overall in the NHL draft and represented Canada at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

You can’t keep your eyes off either of them: McTavish because he does everything so well at both ends of the ice and could shoot a marshmallow through a concrete block, and Xhekaj because he can move, hit, and plays so close to the edge that he sometimes tumbles over it. And, among several others, there’s also Nathan Staios, Steve’s son, who was voted the OHL’s top defenceman and quarterbacks the team’s punishing power play.

The Spitfires have a lot of must-watch going on too, particularly in their indefatigable top two players: seasoned captain Will Cuylle and linemate Wyatt Johnston, the OHL’s regular-season most valuable player and the playoff points leader with 37.

Cuylle and Johnston are threats to score every time they’re on the ice, even while killing penalties, and have a psychic anticipation of each other’s next move. Cuylle’s goal off a perfect feed from Johnston in the first minute of Monday’s third period gave the Spitfires a 4-2 lead and brought a nervous sold-out crowd fully back into the game.

While Hamilton swept its way through the East Conference playoffs, Windsor had to rebound from a 3-2 deficit in the West final to defeat Flint, and they’ve become inured to difficult situations. In hockey parlance, “they keep hanging around” until they can quickly strike hard with force. In Game 6, for instance, they were being outplayed by the Bulldogs but, abetted by emerging goalie Mathias Onuska, never let Hamilton pull away, a trait they’ve shown all series. In a two-minute span straddling Monday’s second intermission they scored three times to ensure their survival into Game 7.

If the Spitfires were a soccer team, they’d be known as counterattackers, suddenly generating odd-man rushes when they appear hemmed in. The key for the Bulldogs will be to maximize their potent power play and to get that extra goal or two when they are in one of their dominant modes instead of hitting the post, letting Onuska see the puck clearly, or missing the gaping net. Hayes, whose 17 goals lead the playoffs, could have had even more with a bit of luck the past couple of games.

In Onuska and Hamilton native Marco Costantini, both teams have reliable goalies capable of multiple darting saves when the shooter’s stick is already hoisted in celebration.

Each side is well-coached and exudes tireless defensive commitment. But, they’re also mostly teenagers, and are all tired and bruised — Hamilton captain, defenceman Colton Kammerer, and important scorer Ryan Winterton have been out with injury — so there are mistakes, especially later in the game.

The team which makes fewer of them will likely prevail Wednesday.

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