Spitfires defenceman Cundari delivers big D

BARRIE, ONT. - Mark Cundari is quickly turning into the Barrie Colts’ worst nightmare.

The Windsor Spitfires’ diminutive defenceman has established himself as a force in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, having put a lid on some of the top offensive threats in the Western Conference. When Spitfires coach Bob Boughner needed the league’s top scorer, Tyler Seguin, shut down in their second-round series against the Plymouth Whalers, he called on Cundari. And when Windsor had to find a way to stop Kitchener Rangers forward Jeff Skinner, the OHL’s top goal scorer, in the Western Conference final the blueliner answered that call, too.

“He’s a warrior,” Boughner said after Windsor’s 5-4 victory over the Colts in front of a sellout crowd of 4,312 at the Barrie Molson Centre on Thursday night. “Last year he was our No. 1 defenceman at the MasterCard Memorial Cup as an 18-year-old. Shutting down guys is something he has learned to do, coming into the league I think he wanted to be an offensive guy and run the power play, but he realizes that his defensive abilities are so strong that that’s what’s going to take him to the next level.”

And now that Windsor finds itself up 2-0 in the OHL championship series heading home for Games 3 and 4, it’s Cundari once again coming through to lead the Spitfires. This time, however, he’s doing it offensively as well.

“He’s such a dominant player,” said Boughner, who played 10 NHL seasons as a hard-nosed blueliner with stops in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Calgary, Carolina and Colorado. “He’s playing so hard against the other team’s top line that pucks are turning over and he’s getting a chance to get into the play.”

On Thursday night, the Woodbridge, Ont. native scored the opening goal of the game – short-handed – and set up two more, including the eventual game winner with a pass that sent forward Zack Kassian in on a breakaway. He also crushed the Colts in Game 1 of the series, when he scored the game-tying goal with 3:26 left in the third period to force overtime. He’s averaging a point per game in the playoffs with three goals and 14 assists in 17 games for the defending OHL and Memorial Cup champions.

“Our confidence and our experience play a huge factor for us in this series,” said Cundari, who turned 20 last Sunday. “We went on a run last year and won the Memorial Cup and that confidence is always with you. We have a championship squad and we’re going to play our hearts out every game because we know exactly what it takes to win a championship.”

The Spitfires’ success in the two road wins to start the final, according to Cundari, has been the defending champs’ adeptness at countering the Colts’ game plan of chipping the puck in deep and playing physical on the forecheck.

“We just get back there and try to move the puck as quickly as possible,” Cundari said. “If we can evade their forecheck it makes it a lot easier for our defencemen and our forwards to breakout and get back to offence."

Cundari’s balance of offence and defence makes him even more dangerous when he’s on the ice as part of Windsor’s top penalty-killing unit, it’s also what helped him earn an NHL contract as a free-agent with the St. Louis Blues. Thanks to Cundari, Windsor has the second-best penalty kill among OHL clubs in the postseason at 88.3 per cent.

“Having him on the back end definitely helps us and he’s regarded as one of the best penalty killers in the league,” said fellow defenceman Cam Fowler. “He’s always the first one to hop out there and that’s why our penalty kill is one of the best in the league.”

Fowler, a first-year OHL defenceman, says his transition to the league was helped immensely by Cundari. He says the affable veteran was one of the first to welcome him to the team and often the first to tell a joke to cut any tension in the locker room.

“He’s a big prankster,” Fowler said. “He’s always got something to say to somebody; the first guy to chirp another teammate, but it’s all in good fun and we give it right back to him.”

At five-foot-10 and 200-pounds, the biggest knock against him has been his size, but opponents that think they’re able to push him around find they’re sadly mistaken.

“He plays like he’s six foot two,” Fowler said. “He’s never afraid to stick up for his teammates.”

Just before the halfway mark of the third period in Game 2, Colts captain Stefan Della Rovere sent Cundari hard into the boards, and after being tended to by Windsor trainer Joey Garland, the defenceman skated off and didn’t miss a shift. Della Rovere spent two minutes in the penalty box for boarding.

“He can take it and dish it,” said Boughner of Cundari’s physical play. “It’s amazing how many hard minutes he plays too. He’s a 30-minutes-plus player and those are hard minutes because he’s playing against the other team’s top line and penalty killing too. It takes a special athlete to do that and he’s in phenomenal shape.”

But now that’s he’s found his offensive flair, it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about his own zone. In the postseason, Cundari leads the team with a plus-17 and in the regular season he was third in the league with a plus-45.

In the second period with Barrie down 3-2 and pressing to tie the game with just over seven minutes left in the period, it was Cundari that managed to hold off Colts defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. When that failed and the blueliner passed the puck to Colts forward Matt Kennedy, it was Cundari who was first to help goaltender Phillipp Grubauer by jumping on the puck before the Barrie blueliner could score.

Later in the game with the Colts trying desperately to even the score, Cundari was called upon again to shut the door in the final seconds.

“You look down at the bench and there’s no else you want on that ice at that time than Mark Cundari,” Boughner said. “We feel spoiled sometimes as coaches [to have him].”

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