The OUA McCaw Cup Playoffs are too close to call

Toronto, Ont. (via 49 Sports) – And so it begins. After a season of back-and-forth battles that came down to the very last weekend of the year for some, the eight teams who have earned the right to play onward are set, and the 2023 OUA McCaw Cup playoffs begin with three series-opening matchups on Wednesday.

Let’s break down the best-of-three quarterfinal series ahead and who looks like they will be moving on in their quest for the McCaw Cup.

Toronto Varsity Blues vs TMU Bold

Olivia Hilton (Toronto Varsity Blues)

What more can be said about the Toronto Varsity Blues this season?

The second-ranked team in the country, the Blues have lost only two games since the middle of November, and both of those losses came in overtime, meaning Toronto has picked up at least a point in 20 straight games. The key reason for the Blues’ success comes from a level of depth that no one in the OUA can match.

They also picke up 23 wins in the season, setting a new program record.

Nikki Macdonald led the team with 11 goals and 24 points, but Taylor Trussler and Kaitlyn McKnight followed right behind her with ten goals apiece. Not to be outdone, Natasha Athanasakos, despite only putting four in the back of the net, added 18 assists to finish eleventh in league scoring. The depth for the Varsity Blues continues in the net, where Madeline Albert and Erica Fryer have been the league’s top tandem. With Albert going 12-0-1 and Fryer following it up at 10-2-1, the dynamic duo finished with the lowest and second-lowest GAA in the league, with Albert at 1.07 and Fryer at 1.39.

On the other side, the TMU Bold are the antithesis of Toronto. Where the Blues are a team loaded with veterans (including a pair of fourth and fifth-year goalies), TMU iced a trio of netminders who each made their OUA debuts in 2022-23. Lauren Griffin was the strongest of the group as they finished 4-7-0 on the season with a 2.36 GAA and a .916 save percentage, but all three of Griffin, Alexia Stratos, and Jayden Lawson each struggled at points down the stretch. If TMU wants a chance to stop the balanced Toronto attack, having one of them step up would be critical.

Megan Breen (TMU Bold)

Outside of the crease, the youth movement for TMU continued. Their former 2019 U SPORTS rookie of the year, now-turned-senior Erika Crouse, led the way as she had before with nine goals and 19 points, along with a solid fifth-year turn from Olivia Giardetti, who had six and 17, respectively. Still, breakout performances from Dani Fox at five goals and 15 points and Megan Breen, who went from one point in her freshman season to 12 this year, helped support the TMU offence.

The reality for this series is that the Bold may not be ready to match up against the Varsity Blues in the playoffs just yet. TMU has their core in place and is building for the next generation as players like Brooklyn Gemmil, Giardetti, and Crouse age out. On the other hand, Toronto is built for this season, and enters the postseason with one goal in mind.

Season Series: Toronto 3-0-0

Nipissing Lakers vs Queen’s Gaels

Maria Dominico (Nipissing Lakers)

The last OUA quarterfinal sees the Nipissing Lakers out for redemption after losing in the McCaw Championship and the U SPORTS final a year ago.

The key to the Lakers’ success for the last few seasons has always revolved around the play of the Dominico sisters, and it was no different in 2022-23. After Maria Dominico led the OUA in scoring with 18 points in 14 games a season ago, her sister Mallory followed that up with a third-place showing this year with 26 points in 26 games. That included five goals and two assists in the five games that Maria was away, winning gold at the FISU World University Games with Team Canada.

Along with other veterans, including Maria, who still finished with 16 points in 20 games, and junior Maggie McKee, who had added five goals and 23 points, the Lakers cruised to second place in the division. In net, the Lakers split the year between Chloe Marshall and Chantelle Sandquist, but Sandquist should get the first crack at the net in the postseason after a 12-3-0 record and a .925 save percentage on the year.

The challenge for the Lakers is to get it done in the postseason. Nipissing came as close as possible twice, losing to Brock in the McCaw Cup finale before falling to the Concordia Stingers in the U SPORTS national championship. With an older core, the time is now for the Lakers to exact revenge, starting with taking down Queen’s.

The Queen’s Gaels barely escaped having to play the nearly unbeatable Toronto Varsity Blues in the first round with a 2-1 win over TMU on the season’s final night. Still, the Lakers are formidable, but the Gaels have created a fascinating year for themselves. They have been the epitome of the old phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” as they finished the 2022-23 campaign with 71 goals for, suitable for fourth best, but also 74 goals allowed, which ranked them second from the bottom.

Scout Watkins Southward, middle, with Team Canada at the FISU Games (U SPORTS)

Starting with the not-so-good, the Gaels sincerely felt the loss of Makenzy Arsenault in the net. Vanessa Campeau took over the starting reigns as a first-year goalie and had a good season, finishing 8-4-0 with a 2.25 GAA and a .936 save percentage. Still, sophomore Lexi Giorgi struggled to a 5-10-0 record while clocking in a save percentage of just .906.

On the offensive side, the Gaels showed a remarkable level of depth, as sophomores Alexandra Maw and Rebecca Thompson, along with fifth-year Quinn Johnston, each finished with 20 points apiece, followed not too far behind by Canadian FISU champion Scout Watkins Southward who added five goals and 14 points herself.

The big separator in this series is in the net. With two goalies who boast provincial and national championship experience, the Lakers have a veteran presence that the Gaels can’t match. Look for Queen’s to steal a game thanks to their offensive depth potentially, but the Lakers should be able pull this series out.

Season Series: Queen’s 2-0-1

Brock Badgers vs Waterloo Warriors

Waterloo’s Carley Olivier and Leah Herrfort spent time with Team Canada (Ben Steiner)

The Waterloo Warriors have to be looking for revenge.

They rolled to a first-place finish in the OUA West a season ago, only to be eliminated from contention with a 2-1 loss to the Western Mustangs in the semifinals. This year, the Warriors returned with a vengeance as Leah Herrfort and Tatum James held on to the top two spots on the scoring table for most of the year, finishing one and two respectively, along with Carley Olivier finishing in eighth.

At the same time, despite Mikayla Schnarr falling to an injury in mid-November, first-year goalie Kara Mark didn’t skip a beat and finished the year 13-5-0 with a 1.69 GAA and a .933 save percentage.

Meanwhile, for the Badgers, the post-championship slump has been real. After winning the 2022 McCaw Cup, the Badgers moved to their new home at Canada Games Park, and it wasn’t exactly home sweet home in the fall. Seven straight losses at home in the fall knocked Brock into a dogfight with the Western Mustangs for the final spot in the division, which they finally won on Friday night.

Brock women’s hockey (Brock Athletics/Victoria Dewar)

After narrowly avoiding being one of the first McCaw Cup champions to miss the playoffs the following year, the Badgers are already playing with house money, but the bones of last year’s championship-winning squad are still there. After barely playing a year ago, Claudia Murphy stepped up to lead Brock with 12 points in 27 games, while first-year goalie Kenzie Harmison took the net over at the start of January and refused to give it up, helping Brock reach their eventual playoff spot.

Waterloo should ultimately take this series, but the biggest challenge for this Warriors team comes almost the same way it did a year ago. On paper, this series should favour t Warriors, but that mindset likely contributed to their downfall a year ago. If they start looking past their opponent, the Badgers just might be able to pull off the upset.

Season Series: Brock: 2-1-0

Guelph Gryphons vs Windsor Lancers

Hannah Tait (Guelph Gryphons)

This series presents an exciting matchup. The Guelph Gryphons come into the McCaw Cup playoffs on an absolute heater, winning six of their final seven games and narrowly missing out on first place in the division by just two points. This means that rather than face off against the struggling Brock Badgers; the Gryphons see the Windsor Lancers come to Guelph. 

It’s been a season of breakouts for the Gryphons, especially up front. After six points in 12 games in her rookie season a year ago, Tori Verbeek exploded for 11 goals and 22 points to lead her squad this year, followed closely by Jaime Magoffin with five goals and 19 points. The breakouts continued in goal as Martina Fedel took control of the net after a perfect 5-0-0 record a year ago and led the Gryphons to a 15-6-1 mark and the third-lowest GAA in the OUA at 1.48.

Conversely, whereas TMU and Queen’s fought for third place for much of the season’s final weeks in the East Division, Windsor has been locked into the third spot since early January. For the Lancers, 2022-23 was a star turn of a season for Jaden Cherry, as the sophomore went from a single point in seven games a year ago to 11 goals and 26 points for the blue and gold, good for fourth in OUA scoring. Cherry slowed down toward the end of the season, registering just one goal and four assists in her final eight games, but she will be key up front for the Lancers in this series. 

Jaden Cherry (Windsor Lancers)

It is almost absurd how much the Gryphons have dominated Windsor all time. Before this season, the Lancers had not beaten Guelph since a 2-0 win on November 11, 2012. However, they finally broke the streak with a 2-1 win a decade later, on November 11, 2022. This should be the tightest of the four OUA series, but it feels like Guelph has just a few more weapons to get by.

Season Series: Windsor 2-1-0

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