OUA men’s hockey playoff preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – playoffs, that is.

Since Christmas, the Stingers have been a whole new team. With some clutch additions to the lineup, and new found chemistry, the team has been on a roll since January. The playoff berth was not secured until late Saturday night when the scores from the Kingston-Toronto teams final games came in. It was down to the wire for three teams fighting for two playoff spots.

“We clinched our spot with the one point we forced from RMC,” said head coach Kevin Figsby. The one point Concordia squeezed in an overtime loss two weekends ago, was the one that put Concordia in, and RMC out. (RMC finished one point behind Concordia in the final standings.)

“You build towards this all year, so it feels good to make it,” said rookie backstopper Sheldon Baerg after Sunday’s game against Ottawa. “There’s a good feeling right now.”

After Friday night’s tie against McGill, assistant captain Trevor Blanchard is excited to play McGill in the first round. “We obviously hadn’t had much success with McGill during the season, but last game we opened a lot of eyes, not only people, but also the press who said we have no chance against McGill.”

While the McGill-Concordia is an age old rivalry, to Ontario native, Blanchard it hit him right away. “I didn’t know too much before I came here, but I found out quick our first game [last season] when the stands were filled with people, and all kinds of signs. Our team, we’re pretty well filled with guys from Montreal and surrounding area that down right hate McGill. It’s something I look forward to, for sure.”

Of the rookie-laden Stingers, Blanchard said, “every team peaks some time, and I think we’re doing it at the right time; I’m excited about McGill.”

Concordia has made a lot of lineup changes, and is not the same team that started the year – literally or figuratively. With Baerg’s return to the ice, Concordia has two legitimate netminders and while Pat Lepage still holds the starting position, it could be either goalie between the pipes this series. “I’m fine with whoever Kevin [Figsby] wants to play, I’ll support Patty 100 per cent and I’ll be ready to go if he calls on me. In the end all I want is to succeed.”

Baerg who has proven his worth as understudy is following in the footsteps of Lepage, whose mettle was tested in the playoffs two seasons ago against the University of Ottawa. “Patty has been great, he has helped me throughout the year, I have learned a lot from him and look up to him,” said Baerg.

The lineup changes and moves head coach Kevin Figsby has been making have been beneficial to the team. “At Christmas, coach brought in some bodies, but it wasn’t to get guys worried about their lineup spot. He brought in two goal scorers, [Dmitri] Toupikov and Remi Tremblay. A guy like [defenceman, Alex] Ward can put some pressure on our starting six D. It helps in practice, because guys on the bubble are going the extra stride. Having the same lineup all year is never a good thing. Sometimes as a coach, you go on a hunch, and I think coach has a good hunch going right now.”

Concordia’s first playoff game is tonight (Wednesday) at McGill. “We’ve experienced playing there twice this year on a carnival night with 1,000 intoxicated students yelling everying you can think of at us on the ice. We’re ready,” said Blanchard. The Stingers play at home on Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday night at McGill (if necessary).


AROUND THE LEAGUE

Last season’s Eastern champions, McGill Redmen, have their work cut out for them. After getting a bye through the first round last year, then ending the playoffs getting shut out by Lakehead in the Queen’s Cup, they’ve got something to prove. Assistant captain Chris Churchill-Smith said, “we got really bogged down with injuries, we didn’t have a great game against Lakehead; they really had everything going for them. They had their home rink even though we were the ones that won the season – but the Queen’s Cup has to be played in Ontario.”

Churchill-Smith, who is from Montreal, loves the rivalry between Concordia and McGill. “Four times a year isn’t enough times. I’d love to play more times than that. I love playing Concordia.”

While Concordia has lost three games and tied one against McGill this season, Churchill-Smith was quick to note, “Concordia’s been making a lot of changes to their lineup – especially since the Christmas break.”

“From a tactical standpoint, we’ll approach it the same way as we approach any other series.”

Ottawa forward, and Montreal native, Billy Triantafilos said though his Gee-Gee team had “a rough start, we stuck together. You only really realize what kind of a team you are when you start losing.”

While Ottawa’s had some hot goaltending lately, Queen’s pulled off a huge upset over the University of Toronto on Saturday night in Kingston. This does not faze Triantafilos, and “we’re really only worried about ourselves. Queen’s is a decent team, but we didn’t care who we were going to play. We’re going to just play hard.”

Defending OUA champs, Lakehead, take on the York Lions in the first round. Their starting goaltender, Royal Bank Cup winner, third year Chris Whitley, sized up their opponents, “they are a similar team to us, however, I think we have more depth. The key is going to be special teams – whoever makes the most of it will win the series.”

York is no stranger to the Lakehead Thunderwolves, “we played them the last two seasons and they have been great series and I would expect nothing less. The have a good goalie [Kevin Druce] and a good top line that we have to watch out for. If we keep them off the scoresheet we’ll be successful,” said Whitley.

The T-Wolves’ performance this season hasn’t been as expected, “we had a great first half, but haven’t played the same to end the season,” but Whitley is confident the team’s big guns will come through for them.

“Jeff Richards and Tobias Whelan have carried the load for most of the year and we rely on them a lot to score big goals for us,” but continued, “the playoffs are going to be a little different; we need other guys to step their game up – myself included. I am going to have to play my best hockey of the season and give us a chance to win.”

Lakehead’s former coach Pete Beliveau stepped down effective Feb. 9, just prior to Lakehead’s final two games of the season against Western. Tom Warden, director of Athletics of Lakehead University, will be acting as head coach until a new coach is found.

Of the change, Whitley said, “it’s different, but at the end of the day he isn’t the one scoring goals or stopping pucks. We under-performed the second half and in those situations the coach is the first one looked at. In this business these things happen; the only thing we can do is look ahead to playoffs and the task at hand for our team and the university.”

The Western Mustangs play Brock first round. Memorial Cup winner, forward Jesse Boucher, pegged the Mustangs’ greatest strength as their work ethic. “When we play well and are at our best, we are outworking our opponents.”

Last season, after posting a stellar regular season record of 21-2-1, and getting the bye into the conference semis, the Mustangs also fell at the hands of Lakehead in the West division final. “After last season, I came to the realization anyone can win. Our division is good enough that if someone isn’t on their game, they won’t win. There is no excuse to take a team lightly; it just can’t be done, or you will see yourself on the outside looking in real fast,” cited Boucher.

In order to beat Brock, Boucher says the team must “bring our ‘A’ game every night. Our players have to stick to their roles and out-play their opponent every shift.”

McGill’s Churchill-Smith agreed with Boucher. “The playoff series aren’t very long. You run into a hot goalie, even if you have a better team . . . there could be some surprises especially this time of year, I think on any given night anyone could win. I mean, we beat [Concordia] three times, but [Concordia] beat Three Rivers the last two times. So, anything can happen.”


PREDICTIONS

Lakehead’s Chris Whitley would like to see Lakehead in the West final (and hey, he called it right last year). And the East? “I really didn’t see them much but I will take a stab at McGill and UQTR just because [Dany] Dallaire and [Mathieu] Poitras are the best two goalies in the East so I’ll make my judgment on that.” Superstitious Jesse Boucher declined to pick. Churchill-Smith said the West is “a real crap shoot. Laurier, Waterloo, Western, Lakehead… those series could all go three games. I’m just happy they play each other before anyone from the East – give them a chance to beat each other up first.” And as for the East? Like Boucher, Churchill-Smith doesn’t want to jinx anything.

HOW THE PLAYOFFS WORK

12 teams of the 16 team OUA will make the playoffs. In the Eastern conference, which is made up of the Mid East and Far East divisions (Concordia belonging to the latter) the two first place teams in each division get a bye into the second round. In the Far East, that’s UQTR, and in the Mid East, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. The rest of the four teams that make the playoffs are seeded three through six, with McGill in third playing Concordia, and Ottawa in fourth, playing fifth place Queens. In the Far West, the Waterloo gets the bye, in the Mid West, Laurier gets the bye. Western plays Brock, and Lakehead plays York. Each team which wins it’s quarter-final will advance to play the two teams receiving the bye, where they are seeded one through four, with one playing four, and two playing three. When it gets down to one team remaining in each conference, the East winner will play the West winner for the OUA final aka the Queen’s Cup, though both teams will go on to the national championships in Moncton, N.B. in late March.

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