WOLFVILLE, NS – U SPORTS Men’s Hockey is down to the final four, and belief is brewing for every team that fancies their chances at taking home the David Johnston University Cup.
While members from each conference remain in the fold with the Queen’s Cup Champion UQTR Patriotes, Canada West Champion Alberta Golden Bears, AUS runner-up StFX X-Men, and the electric OUA third seed Ryerson Rams, each has a case as to why they could bring the trophy home.
With the quarter-finals in the books, the tournament moves on to the final two days, and for the first time since 2012, an OUA team will be in the Championship Final.
Whether Ryerson captures their first title, or UQTR wins their first since 2003, OUA teams are back in the U CUP conversation, and have could very well bring the trophy back to their conference.
Ryerson Rams: All doubts dusted and top to bottom contributors
For the second season in a row, the third seed from the OUA upset a conference champion in the quarterfinal, but taking the UNB Reds out in the first round is far different from what the Western Mustangs pulled off in 2020, eliminating the Saskatchewan Huskies.
By beating UNB, Ryerson has proven that they can play with and beat the best in U SPORTS. With the win in their pocket, they have the confidence to beat anyone, even the Queen’s Cup Champions, Canada West Champions or AUS runner-ups.
Led by head coach Johnny Duco, the veteran-heavy Rams had to play a near-perfect game against the Reds, and they pulled it off, scoring early and holding a defensive structure even as the Reds maintained puck possession.
When Kevin Gursoy marked his return to Nova Scotia with a goal 17 seconds in, it changed the game’s outlook for both teams. Outside of smaller spurts, the Rams had not played a game at such a high pace and with incredible vigour all season, but there they were, leading the AUS Champions.
“If you look at the playoffs we had, we found ourselves in some pretty big holes we had to dig ourselves out of,” Duco said after the UNB upset. “It’s been crucial that we get off to a fast start and aren’t chasing games, knowing that’s not a recipe for success.”
Outside of pure confidence, the Rams’ secret to success in the rest of the tournament will be their drive and defensive structure. At no point, against UNB’s skilled forwards, were the Rams drawn away from their systems, sticking to their game plan and not allowing UNB to get into high-scoring zones.
While goaltender Garett Forrest stood strong with 36 saves, Ryerson’s organization in the defensive end and hard forecheck pushed them to victory over the second-best team in the country, as they shed any doubts about their program and the OUA as a whole.
They take on UQTR in the semifinal, a team they wanted to face just last week in the Queen’s Cup final. While the Patriotes have been strong, they struggled to get past the UBC Thunderbirds and have ben pushed by OUA teams inferior to Ryerson.
The next step — get past UQTR. After that, Ryerson’s group has proven that they can beat the best, making Alberta or StFX a non-issue, and it is that confidence, combined with the commitment to structure, that wil have the Rams win the U CUP.
UQTR Patriotes: Alexis Gravel
If the UQTR Patriotes are to advance past the Ryerson Rams on Saturday, it will come down to the play of star goaltender Alexis Gravel, who made 37 saves against UBC in the quarter-final before his teammate Felix Lauzon won the game, 2-1 in double overtime.
Gravel was integral for the Patriotes throughout the season and into the playoffs, posting a .953 save percentage through the OUA postseason. With his stellar play, he has ensured that UQTR hasn’t regressed in goaltending since former Sebastien Auger’s retirement two seasons ago.
Gravel will be called upon to make a lot of saves after a Ryerson team that will transition the puck quickly, but seeing a lot of rubber is what Gravel is used to.
While UQTR can shut down against some teams, they play a very dynamic hockey style and rely on their goaltender a ton. Fortunately for head coach Marc-Ettiene Hubert, his side has one of the nation’s best backstops.
Playing double overtime in the first game of three days is far from ideal, and the UQTR skaters will undoubtedly have tired legs heading into the semifinal and medal game, leaving Gravel in the net to stand tall.
If the UQTR Patriotes are to take down the Rams and make a run towards the U CUP, it will come down to outstanding goaltending performances from Alexis Gravel.