The Stingers found themselves in a hole at the end of Thursday night.
It wasn’t an insurmountably deep hole and they’d faced plenty of pressure like this throughout the season—but the hole remains nonetheless.
“It’s not one game that’s going to bury us. We’re going to be fine. We just have to go back to the basics […] and work our balls off,” said Stingers captain Philippe Sanche after the team’s loss in game one of the OUA East playoffs.
A 2-1 loss certainly wasn’t the result that they were searching for against cross-town rival McGill, but if they want to find a different result in their do-or-die matchup on Saturday night at home, they’ll need a different start.
While the game started with the back and forth pace that comes with matchups between Concordia and McGill, the Stingers spent much of the first half of the game looking flat and lacking energy.
McGill controlled play heavily through the first period and it took Stingers goalie Kyle Jessiman making a collection of show stopping saves to keep the team together.
The normally speedy, physical team looked to be missing some of the keys to what made them such a dangerous force this season.
“[The physicality] was ok. I wanted the guys to be a little bit more physical on them. That’s what we addressed between the second and the third,” said Stingers head coach Marc-André Élement. “If we do that we’ll have more success. We have to limit their time and space.”
The sleepy start mixed with some unfortunate and questionable calls by the referees left the Stingers chasing the game; a dangerous place to be in a best-of-three playoff series where every second matters so much.
“It’s always a little bit nerve-wracking to start the playoffs. You got that little bit of anxiety, it takes you a while to settle in. Especially if it’s your first year in the league,” said Stingers forward Tyler Hylland.
The team’s youth and inexperience started to show as they took the time to get used to the hard, fast, tight game that comes with postseason hockey.
Of the nineteen players that saw the ice for the Stingers, nine were in their first U Sports playoff game. Another six had only ever played two playoff games in the league. Only Sanche, centre Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, defencemen Carl Neill and Alexandre Gosselin had more experience than that heading into game one against McGill.
Those nerves did get pushed off eventually.
“We’re a young team, [after the first] guys were feeling more confident and in the game. We kept our game simple,” said Élement.
Midway through the second, the team started to find itself and its style a bit more. Hylland scored his first U Sports playoff goal and the play began to shift the Stingers’ way.
They dominated possession in the third period, missing chances by inches. The closest they came to evening a game in which they had trailed 2-0 came as Neill ripped a heavy shot just off the post in the game’s final minute.
Though they failed to find an equaliser in their late-game push, the control that the Stingers played with in the third felt like something they could carry over.
“If we play like we did in the third, we’ll be right back in that series Saturday,” said Élement.
It’s pressure time now though. The team will need to win at home in game two in order to keep their season alive and force a decisive game three back at McGill on Sunday.
The Stingers are now faced with two words they’ve become accustomed to this season: pressure and adversity.
They’ve been injured (missing up to eight players at times), dealt with suspensions, a young class not having a full lineup to play with, and more. It’s been a rocky season with plenty of obstacles. That’s exactly why the team feels ready for this moment.
“It’s never a good thing to have a perfect season. It helps build a team’s character to go through adversity during the year,” said Hylland. “If you face adversity as a team and you’re used to it, you know how to handle it and respond. We’re facing adversity again, it’s nothing new to us, we know how to respond.”
He pointed to the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues. The blues were last in the league standings at point and were continuously counted out before eventually winning the cup.
The Stingers have no options. It’s time to take any lessons learned this year and put them to good use with everything on the line. They should be laser focused and ready to play Saturday night.
“It’s the biggest game of the year. There’s not a nervous feeling in the room,” said Hylland.
Photos by Kyran Thicke