TORONTO, ON – Over two years since the Guelph Gryphons hoisted the 109th Queen’s Cup in front of their fans in March 2020, the OUA Men’s Hockey playoffs are back in search of the 110th edition of the coveted trophy.
With a revised playoff format of just one game knockouts rather than best-of-three series, 16 OUA teams will take to the ice in the first round in search of a spot at the 2022 U SPORTS National Championship in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
This year, the two finalists get a spot at the U CUP, making that berth just four wins from reality. So, with playoffs set for excitement, we take a look at the top five stories to follow in the OUA postseason.
Queen’s will get tested
The Queen’s Gaels have had it easy this season. While that may sound like a slight on their team, they have not faced opponents that have pushed them to their limits, going a combined 13-0-0 against Nipissing and RMC.
However, they were presented with opponents, and they did their job; they couldn’t have done anything else.
Considering their tight matchups against the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks, the 2022 Queen’s Gaels are an enigma when it comes to the playoffs. They have the top two scorers in the OUA with rookies Jonathan Yantsis and Holden Katzalay, but both have feasted on the Paladins and Lakers. At the backend, goaltender Luke Richarson has been dominant throughout the season with a league-leading .944 save percentage.
A strength for the Gaels is the confidence that they have rolling into the playoffs. While winning many games without much challenge may not be the best preparation skill-wise, they can be assured that their confidence will be greater than any opponent.
Brett Gibson behind the bench will help the Gaels, as it usually does. A 2019 Queen’s Cup winner with some group members, Gibson and the veterans will play a critical role in navigating the playoffs for a team headlined by young talent. Although the one-game knockouts are a new feature of these playoffs, it won’t be too challenging for a leadership group that has played in one-game knockouts in the OUA Final and University Cup.
Rest assured, the Gael’s 42% powerplay will fall back in the playoffs. However, their special teams will be above average, having drawn a league-leading 75 powerplays through the regular season.
Facing the McGill Redbirds in the first round could be a perfect start for the Gaels. The Redbirds are far from championship contenders but feature a quicker team that can test the Gaels, who have banked on a lot of their speed for their success.
Queen’s v McGill Breakdown:
Players to watch: Holden Katzalay (Queen’s), Keanu Yamamoto (McGill)
Prediction: Queen’s wins
Game Details: 7:30 pm ET Wednesday, Memorial Centre, Kingston
It’s a must-win year for Ryerson
No team in the OUA will have more pressure to win than the Ryerson Rams. With 14 graduating players after this season, the program will be diving into a few years of rebuilding before they can challenge again. However, the first step is getting past the second round, something they’ve not done since 1963, en route to the OIAA Championship.
During the extended pause, the Rams lost veteran goaltender Luke Peressini and blueliner Greg DiTomaso to the pro ranks but have found their stride with rookies and second-year players, with veterans still contributing.
While they have yet to test themselves in an OUA playoff series, the second-year rookie line of Kyle Bollers, Chris Playfair, and Elijah Roberts has been firing on all cylinders in the second half of the season. Bollers ended the season tied with Queen’s Katzalay with 13 goals and led the OUA in points-per-game (8+ games), scoring at a 1.67 PP/G clip.
The question for the Rams is just how well their goaltending will fare. Head Coach Johnny Duco and co brought in Peressini in the offseason as a veteran presence who can steal a playoff game, but they’ve turned to Garett Forrest without him. While Forrest is no subpar goaltender with a save percentage of .904, he can get beaten in critical situations and allow pucks to sneak through from inopportune scoring plays.
Like Queen’s on special teams, the Rams league-leading 94% penalty kill will slide back, but they have faced more challenging teams through the season, including a Toronto Varsity Blues team that was on a heater to end the season.
Taking on the Western Mustangs in the first round, the Rams meet the team that upset them in 2020. With those 14 graduating players, there will be a grudge that is still held against the Mustangs, who still feature players such as Franco Sporveiro, who managed to aggravate the Rams significantly in 2020. Of course, there is also Kolten Olynek, who scored the Game 3 OT winner in that 2020 series
At the same time, the Mustangs are in a familiar position as the underdogs. Despite a new-look team, they made the U CUP semifinals after qualifying for the playoffs as the eighth seed in 2020. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, and Western will challenge, no doubt, but the Rams have a lot of skill and scoring prowess that will be tough to tame.
Ryerson v Western Breakdown:
Players to watch: Kyle Bollers (Ryerson), Sean Montgomery (Western)
Prediction: Ryerson wins
Game Details: 6:00 pm ET Wednesday, Mattamy Athletic Centre, Toronto
Streaking Varsity Blues are in form at the right time
The Toronto Varsity Blues were not good to start their season, and after losing David Thomson, the 2020 OUA Male Athlete of the Year, there was some doubt that the Varsity Blues could salvage the year.
Before the break, they were 2-4-0 and looked lifeless; despite having Thomson and other veterans such as Kyle Clarke and Joey Manchurek, the Varsity Blues couldn’t get it done.
Then, those veterans signed pro, and the tides turned at the rink on Bloor Street. While they added former Laurier Golden Hawk Jeremy Pullara, most of the improvement has come from within, and they strut into the postseason on a five-game win streak.
“It changed the dynamic of our team a little bit, but in all honesty, it’s been more ice time for some other guys who have slid into the role, and it’s something we talked about a lot after losing the guys that we did,” Toronto Head Coach Ryan Medel told 49 Sports. “We needed to come together through this, and for us, we wanted to prove that we can still be a good team in this league.”
One of those players who has hit his stride is former London Knight Billy Moskal, who played every game of the season and was the team’s second-highest scorer with 19 points in 17 games. Shifted up the lineup after the departures, he quickly found his footing and enters the playoffs riding a five-game point streak. It often takes a few games for players from the OHL to get used to the OUA level, and Moskal was no exception; however, the elevation of his play pushed Toronto into the postseason.
Aside from Moskal, the Varsity Blues rely on forward Kyle Potts for scoring and rookie Quinn Hanna on defence. Both players thrived in their roles this season and will play integral roles in Toronto is to take a Queen’s Cup shot.
The Varsity Blues welcome the Waterloo Warriors for the first game of the series, and although it won’t be a walk in the park, Toronto is the favourite. Waterloo has not shown a ton in standout play, making their way into the playoffs in unspectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Toronto’s confidence and good form at every position should be enough to launch them to round two.
Toronto v Waterloo Breakdown
Players to watch: Billy Moskal (Toronto), Dan Walker (Waterloo)
Prediction: Toronto wins
Game details: 7:30 Wednesday, Varsity Arena, Toronto
Ottawa could be the team to make a shocking run
Feel-good stories are golden, and there might not be a better one than the uOttawa Gee-Gees under Head Coach Patrick Grandmaitre. After the program shut down in th wake of sexual assault allegations in March of 2014, Grandmaitre came in and built a team and culture of winning with respect.
With an entire first-year class coming into the re-aunched program in 2016-17, the Gee-Gees made their main mark in 2020 when they qualified for the U CUP and lost the Queen’s Cup final in triple overtime to the Guelph Gryphons.
At that point, nearly the entire team graduated, and the rebuilt Gee-Gees looked as though they would enter a couple of years of rebuilding. But, instead, what could have been a few years, took mere months.
Despite some early seasons struggles in 2021, the Gee-Gees, under Grandmaitre, have harnessed some veterans and a large group of youngsters to power them to the playoffs and a promising path for a deep run.
Captain Yvan Mongo has led with confidence and experience, leaving the team with 14 points on the ice and a stellar character away from the rink. On the backend, Nicolas Mattinen has proven to be one of the elite blueliners in U SPORTS, earning a nod to Team Canada for the FISU Games and leading uOttawa defensive bounceback after a February 10-2 loss to UQTR.
On the rookie side, forward Mathieu Desgagnes and goaltender Anand Oberoi stand out. Desgagnes dizzying defences with quick speed and skill, while Oberoi slotted into the crease with confidence when Tristan Berube signed in the ECHL.
Like the Varsity Blues, the Gee-Gees have found their style and are cruising into the playoffs, where they could have a path towards the Eastern Final. They face Nipissing in the first round, a team tormented by Queen’s this season, before potentially taking on those Queen’s Gaels in the second round.
Although both would be challenging games, the Gee-Gees have the quality to win both, which would earn them an OUA semifinals spot against UQTR, Concordia, Ontario Tech or Carleton.
Ottawa vs Nipissing Breakdown
Player to watch: Nicolas Mattinen (Ottawa), Jacob Hickey (Nipissing0
Prediction: uOttawa wins
Game Details: Wednesday, 7:30 pm ET, North Bay Memorial Gardens
Which matchups are set for upsets?
With the OUA shifting to a single-game knockout format for the 2022 Queen’s Cup playoffs, upsets are virtually guaranteed. Western managed to cause raucous in the best of three format two seasons ago, making the potential for chaos and upsets ripe in 2022.
In the first round, the most likely upsets are McGill eliminating Queen’s, Western eliminating Ryerson, Carleton taking out UQTR and York leaving Windsor with a win.
#8th seeded McGill eliminating the Gaels would be an upset, but not as big as it would seem, with the Gaels not having faced a test like the Redbirds all season. Meanwhile, the Western Mustangs could get a fluke goal against Ryerson and use their experience to catch out the Rams.
In the other two series, look for York to ride their confidence from their season finale win, their first against Ryerson since 2018, and to test Nathan Tochria, Windsor’s rookie netminder taking on his first must-win game. For Carleton to take out UQTR, it will come down to a team effort, but it is certainly possible considering that Carleton only played 10 games this season, the least in U SPORTS, and are a reasonably unknown team UQTR and the OUA.
Although these results are unlikely, they are the matchups most primed to see an upset.
Ben Steiner’s Queen’s Cup Predictions
Cover Photo: Matt Garies, McGill Athletics