Toronto, ON – The OUA Queen’s Cup men’s hockey playoffs have reached their midway mark, and so far, they’ve been one of the more intriguing postseasons in recent years.
While no teams outside the top four seeds remain in the hunt for the OUA Championship and the three available U SPORTS National Championship berths, there have been a few standout takeaways at the midway mark.
Ahead of the semifinals, 49 Sports looks at three things we’ve learned from the first two rounds of the OUA Queen’s Cup playoffs.
It’s tough to win in Thunder Bay
The Lakehead Thunderwolves may have needed three games to get by the Toronto Varsity Blues in the second round, but the OUA West regular season champions have the crowd on their side.
In front of over 3,500 fans for Game 2 and 2700+ for Game 3, the atmosphere at the Fort Williams Arena is by far one of the most challenging in the OUA, pushing the Thunderwolves onwards against challenging opposition and earning their first playoff series win in eight years.
There have been 19 OUA men’s playoff hockey games this year. The two in Thunder Bay drew 6,398 fans. The other 17 drew a combined 5,893.
Although the crowds have become expected for head coach Andrew Wilkins and the Thunderwolves program, it’s clear they’re a valuable motivator to a group of players enjoying a season unlike Lakehead has seen in nearly a decade.
“We were off for 13 days. I thought it took us a little while to find our game,” Wilkins said after winning Game 1 in the Toronto series, knowing that the crowd could provide a much-needed boost to his group as they looked down the road toward the final rounds of the post-season.
“It would be amazing [to host a Queen’s Cup] at home. We have a lot of work, but we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
Lakehead might not bring in the most highly-touted prospects from Canada’s major junior leagues, but their depth, hard-checking play, and ability to roll four lines have defined their group all season. Through the first round, they proved that style can succeed under playoff pressure and that they’ve got a true playoff fortress in Thunder Bay.
The crowd pushed Lakehead on to a five-goal final frame in Game 3 against Toronto, giving them a strong foundation for the rest of the playoffs. Should Lakehead win against Windsor, the Fort Williams Gardens would host the Queen’s Cup Final.
The Thunderwolves now welcome the Windsor Lancers for Game 2 and, if needed, Game 3 of the OUA West Final after visiting Windsor’s Capri Pizzeria Complex for the semifinal opener.
UQTR show why they’re the OUA favourites
Coming into the OUA postseason, the UQTR Patriotes were the clear favourites. After all, they are the defending OUA and U SPORTS champions and didn’t lose many key pieces from 2022’s run.
After one round, we’ve learned again why so many picked them to win the Queen’s Cup.
Facing the Carleton Ravens in the second round, the Patriotes picked apart their opposition and navigated their way past Carleton’s star goaltender Mark Grametbauer. Through Carleton’s first round, Grametbauer stopped 87 shots in two shutouts against Ontario Tech — only for UQTR to pot nine goals in as many games.
Regular season OUA points leader Simon Lafrance didn’t slow down, scoring a goal and two assists in the sweep, while Zachary Lavigne potted a pair of goals and an assist. Yet, the driving force offensively has been Julien Tessier, who grabbed four assists and a goal of his own.
Like the 2022 postseason, goaltender Alexis Gravel is also stealing the show once again, stopping 65 shots through the two games and playing an integral role in UQTR’s 3-1 victory in Game 1.
The UQTR Patriotes have a winning pedigree and know how to score goals in various ways, all facets which will make them a tough out for Concordia, Windsor, or Lakehead in their pursuit of the 111th Queen’s Cup.
It’s all about the top seeds in the OUA
Rarely do the OUA playoff favourites make their way to the semifinals. This year, however, the top four seeds, each of whom received byes in the opening round, have all advanced to the penultimate stage of the playoff push, while none of the teams that hit the ice in that initial round remain.
While the playoff format has shifted in recent seasons, there has often been at least one underdog team to knock off a top team or at least a top team to falter after a bye week. This year, however, there wasn’t a single upset against the top-ranked programs.
Although the compact playoff schedule tested some of the teams that played the opening round, the depth and ability to regain game rhythms quickly proved to be an advantage for the top-seeded teams.
The OUA Queen’s Cup playoffs only saw one upset in the opening round, as the Toronto Varsity Blues ousted the TMU Bold. Yet aside from that, the lower seed has only won four times in the 19 games played through two rounds.
The 2023 OUA men’s hockey playoffs continue on Wednesday night with the Lakehead Thunderwolves facing off against the Windsor Lancers and the UQTR Patriotes duelling with the Concordia Stingers in an all-Quebec OUA East Final.