Guelph, ON- 20 teams kicked off the season with hopes of playing this upcoming weekend. After over 30 gruelling games of hockey, only two teams remain. It’s the Queen’s Cup Final on Saturday where the Guelph Gryphons host the Ottawa Gee-Gees for all of the proverbial marbles in OUA men’s hockey.
The 2019-20 season has been one of the strangest of any as it unfolded with upsets all the way through.
The RMC Paladins managed to find their way into the playoffs and for a little while, they were the Cinderella story. RMC’s glory was brief as the story soon focused on the unpredictable run of the Western Mustangs.
Western, who came into the conference quarter-finals as the lowest seed, knocked out both the top two in the Toronto Varsity Blues and Ryerson Rams and galloped their way to the conference final. After all of the upsets and hundreds of games featuring over 450 players, it all comes down to one game on Saturday night for the OUA Queen’s Cup.
The OUA does things a little bit differently than the other two U Sports conferences. They have the only playoff structure that features 16 teams, however, the difference is that the final is only a single game. The one-game final certainly offers some excitement that the other conferences lack in their respective best of three series, but it also allows previous performances to hold less value. Although that may be the case, the numbers can give us an idea of what we can expect in the final showdown of OUA hockey.
One of the game-changing factors in hockey is a team’s power play, however, both the Gryphons and Gee-Gees have very similar potency throughout the playoffs on the man advantage.
Ottawa has a higher percentage, having scored on 26% of their opportunities, but they also have nearly double the time on the power play as Guelph has had. This is an indication that the Gee-Gees are adept at drawing penalties, however, if that is their tactic, more success on the power play would be welcome.
The Gryphons power play has had 21 opportunities and has scored four times. Their unsuccessful man advantage can be attributed to a few things. The sudden departure of their leading scorer Mikkel Aagard to the German pro league did not help with their consistency and is likely part of the reason that they have struggled in the playoffs. The other problem is the fact that opposing teams have been able to worry about other players with Aagard absence, meaning their leading power play goal scorer Giordano Finoro has had less time and space to contribute with the power play.
So who has the edge on the power play? I would have to give this one to the Gee-Gees. In the final where so much emotion is on the line, it is going to be easier than ever to aggravate their opponents and make the Gryphons draw penalties. I would expect them to get an abundance of power play chances which would reward them with one goal every four times if they keep par for the course. This will be a very interesting battle to watch. Guelph has averaged 2.25 PIMS per game in the postseason, the lowest of any team who played three games, but if Ottawa can get under the hyde of the Gryphon, they could punish.
Between the pipes: Stats and experience
In a one-game final, the possibility of a goalie “stealing a game” is a great one. It is not as possible in a multi-game series as often times, the better team will prevail. However, the single-game format favours the goalies as the game-changers.
The likely starters are Domenic Graham for the Gee-Gees and Brendan Cregan for the Gryphons. Both have started most of the playoff games for their teams and both have been important factors which have led the two sides to this point.
In the one-game final, there are a lot of things that come into question. As always, there is the save percentage which is a good baseline stat to get a sense of where a goaltender is at, but another thing to consider is big-game experience.
Graham and Cregan are first-year goalies with their respective schools. Graham, however, spent four years with the Nipissing Lakers, also of the OUA, but never played a playoff game for them.
Starting with the stats, Graham has been elite throughout the playoffs so far. He has conceded two goals per game which is average, however, it’s the save percentage which is to be reckoned with. Graham sits at .934 after eight playoff games, good for the second-best in the playoffs. He finished the regular season with a .914 which was his best for a season of over 15 games since posting a .919 with Nippising in 2016-17.
Cregan has not been as dominant and split the regular season with Andrew Masters. However, Cregan has been relied on in the playoffs. Through 12 regular-season games, he posted a .896 stat line, but has improved to .908 in the playoffs. Not as stunning as Graham, but still quite high.
Both goalies endured tough games through their OHL careers. Cregan never made it past the first round of the QMJHL playoffs, but got the opportunity to play in nine playoff games over his career. He has experience playing on the verge of elimination, but he has yet to win in such a situation. The experience will be helpful, but it pales in comparison to the playoff and big game resume boasted by Ottawa’s Graham.
Graham was once a legitimate NHL prospect. He played in four QMJHL playoff series, two of which as the main goalie. He also never won a series, but got to experience the heart-crushing defeat four times. During his time in junior hockey, he was named to Team Canada for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup which is an annual summer showcase featuring the best U18 players from select countries. He played a single game at the tournament, but that was enough to bring home the gold medal over teams such as Russia and Sweden. On that Canada squad, Graham wore the red and white alongside many future NHL’ers, including Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly and Calgary Flames superstar Sean Monahan. Although his success is limited, the abundance of experience will help his mindset when he hits the ice for the Queen’s Cup.
While U Sports is a different animal than international play or the QMJHL, those past experiences have all helped bring these two goalies to where they currently stand.
Between the stats and experience, the goaltending battle will be a fun one to watch come Saturday.
The last time that these two teams faced each other was back in October, but the sides featured nearly identical players, with the only difference being Aagard having departed from Guelph. The Gee-Gees won that game 5-4 in overtime and Aagard had an assist for Guelph. With their last result so recent and by such a close score, there is no reason why the final should not offer a greater thrill.
It has taken a big effort for all of the athletes to get to this point and of the over 450, the ones in Guelph and Ottawa colours are the only ones who get the chance to play this weekend. It will be physical, there will be goals and in the end, there will be a 2020 Queen’s Cup Champion.
Title Graphic: Thomas Pocrnic/49 Sports (Player photos from Guelph Gryphons Athletic Dept. and Greg Kolz)