Toronto, ON- “We were here last year and lost, we believe we can win this year.” Those were some of the words that University of Toronto Varsity Blues head coach Vicky Sunohara said after their semi-finals win over the Ryerson Rams. On Friday night, they hit the Varsity Arena ice once again as they look for their first OUA championship since 2003 over the York Lions.
2003 certainly seems like a long time ago. It has been even longer for the Lions who’s last McCaw Cup came all the way back in 1996. As these two teams go head-to-head, one of these streaks will come to an end. While the game will be contested over 60 or more minutes of hockey, that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about it for a little longer than that. So what are the stories behind the final? Well, here you go.
The OUA women’s hockey regular season was a thriller to behold. The Varsity Blues ran away with the top of the table as they finished with 55 points, but the closeness of the rest of the standings was something unprecedented. Only nine points separated the second seed and final playoff team. In a structure that awards three points for a regulation win, this level of competition is something to be heralded.
With the regular season’s standings so close, it led to a high level of hockey and tight competition throughout the playoffs. Both the Varsity Blues and York Lions have had to endure this competition.
Something that makes the women’s hockey finals more exciting than the men is that the possibility of rivalries in the finals is present. This is because the women’s table is not split up into two different conferences. Rather, it is just the top eight in a single table who qualify. With three teams in Toronto, the likelihood of a subway series is likely and that is exactly what we have in this year’s edition.
There is going to be a large crowd that will pack Varsity Arena on Friday night as the Blues fans always have a good playoff turnout and the York Lions have given out free tickets to their student body. With all of that, the atmosphere inside the old Bloor Street arena will be something special.
In most cases, it’ s not the defenders who are highlighted in a playoff run, however, for both of these Toronto schools, their defenders have not only kept the puck out their own nets, but also have been the primary people putting the puck in their opponents net.
The top two regular-season scorers who will be in the final are Toronto’s Gabriel De Serres and York’s Taylor Division. Both put up 20 points through 24 regular-season games and have been cornerstones to every aspect of their teams.
Both players have been outstanding for their teams throughout the year, and are large reasons why the teams are where they are. However, there are some differences in the players skill and deployment, which is discussed below.
What makes Davison and De Serres special? A conversation with York Lions Director of Advanced Performance, Rachel Doerrie
The box stats such as goals and assists can only tell part of the story, but there is a lot more that goes into how good these two players are. Rachel Doerrie, York Lions director of advanced performance, formerly with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, spoke to 49 about the play of Taylor Davison.
“Taylor [Davison] is used in every situation. Power play, penalty kill, even strength, she is used a lot,” said Doerrie. She also spoke about how most of the metrics which she has tracked put Davison as one of the best defensemen in the OUA.
Other than playing a lot, there are some things that Davison does extremely well. “She makes the gameplay at her pace, she controls it.” That statement there shows just how important she is to the success of the Lions.
As for De Serres, Doerrie could not comment as much as she has less of a profile on the Toronto defender, but said that she is used in more specific situations, but is still a quality player that the Lions have to pay attention to.
York may have swept both of their series’, but it has not been an easy road. While there are no stats for physicality tracked in OUA women’s hockey, I can guarantee you that if there were, the Lions would be near the top of that category.
All you have to do to get a sense of the York Lions run is to watch their last playoff game against the Nipissing Lakers. In front of a raucous crowd at Canlan Ice Sports, the Lions potted half a dozen against the visiting Lakers. Despite the lopsided score, the game had emotions high and hits galore. The physical play of the Lions, combined with their skill, have been the factors that have led them through the playoffs. Put simply, their defence finds ways to get the puck and everyone on the roster knows how to score.
The Ryerson Rams, who were in the midst of their best season ever, gave a bigger challenge to the Varsity Blues than Toronto could have expected. The series-opening game was a strange game. It started with Toronto dominating, but after the first 20 minutes, the script flipped as Ryerson put their pedal to the metal, had players stand out and took the home-ice advantage away from Toronto.
After their initial win, the Ryerson Rams faltered. Two overtimes later, the Ryerson Rams fell to the Varsity Blues as Toronto heads to their second straight OUA final. It was not as dominant a performance as the Varsity Blues would have hoped for against the fifth-place side, but they got through and that is all that matters.
What each team has to do:
Doerrie also spoke about what the Lions will have to do to win the series. It comes down to a few things, the specialty teams and general style of play, two things which are a massive focus for the Lions. Doerrie could not go into exactly what the style of play is, but she did say that her and her team have been able to identify their weaknesses of the Varsity Blues and have planned their tactics accordingly. “New things are coming for this game. We have some tactics that we have tinkered with and we think we can win it.”
There are some things that the Varsity Blues are going to have to have going for them if they want to come out with the McCaw Cup after the game. The first of which is the play of goaltender Erica Fryer who Doerrie said is one of the best in the league.
While the common conception of Fryer is of an elite goalie, the stats back that up. Through the regular season, Fryer posted a .943 save percentage and despite not having the highest stat in the league, the importance to her team in crucial moments elevated her above the rest. In the playoffs, Fryer is at .930, which is lower than the regular season. However, her workload has been much more sufficient.
Another important factor to the Varsity Blues will be to play efficiently. The Lions have played the minimum amount of games to get to this point whereas the Varsity Blues certainly have not. While the adrenaline of a final will certainly aid in possible fatigue, the possibility of too much hockey catching up to them is possible.
All that being said, if Fryer is on fire and they play efficient hockey, they will increase their chances of winning.
It has been a long, hard road for both teams to get here and both teams feature a roster comprised of some players who are very skilled. If it keeps the course of the season, it will be the blueliners and goalies who will decide the OUA Final. However, despite all the stats, in the end, the only one that matters is the final score and in this game, the trophy count.
Cover Graphic: Base photo from Toronto Varsity Blues Athletics. Graphic by Ben Steiner