By Ankur Kumar
(BRAMPTON, ON) – This is turning into a special year for the Guelph Gryphons and the Windsor Lancers. Both teams are the final contenders for the OUA West division title, but they are back to square one. The West Finals will be played like a season of its own, reduced to a best two out of three.
For the second straight year, the Windsor Lancers swept the Lakehead Thunderwolves, 2-0. Spencer Pommells’ hat trick in game one was a marvel, but the game two heroics of Eric Noel, team captain Drew Palmer, and Dylan Denomme has everyone chiming about the Viper Line; collectively named for their days with the GOJHL’s Lasalle Vipers before their membership with the Windsor Lancers.
“We have a good chemistry. I’m usually a center and playing left wing is different,” explained the sophomore forward Noel. “But I’m a better player because of them [Palmer and Denomme]”
It is fun to bask in successful plays with teammates with whom Noel has risen through the ranks, but the Lancers were not the only team with a celebratory finish in the second round.
The Gryphons wowed the OUA and the CIS with their game three victory by a score of 5-2. It is a seldom circumstance that a team will battle back and capture a series when dropping game one by a drastic score. Whether it was the 5-0 loss to Waterloo in round one or the 8-3 loss to Toronto, the Gryphons earned their place in the West Finals for the first time since 2011.
“They’ve made it this far and they won’t quit,” Noel mused about the upcoming series. “They’ve knocked off two good teams.“
It will be their first return to South Windsor Arena since the 2014-15 season opener, a starting point to an otherwise forgettable regular season. The Gryphons lost 4-2 in their first game of the new campaign, followed by three more losses, including a second surrender within 10 days to the reigning Queen’s Cup champions.
The Gryphons ended October with a 7-2 loss to the Toronto Varsity Blues, foreshadowing the ugliest November in their team’s history. They failed to win a single game heading into the holiday break. A winless November that blanked the Gryphons from everyone’s mind.
As the Gryphons spiralled downwards, the Lancers set several historic marks in the midst of one of the greatest starts in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Both teams have pursued different journeys, but now they’ve intersected at a very definitive crossroad.
“We’re going to focus on a good start in the first period and go from there,” Noel said about the pending game one. “It prepares us a little better, keeps us focused, and ready to play. We’ve encouraged each other a lot through the playoffs and we’ll keep that going.”
The Lancers and Gryphons will meet for the fourth time in OUA post-season play this Wednesday. In 1993, the Gryphons swept the Lancers in the Quarter-Finals in two straight games. The Gryphons advanced to the Queen’s Cup championship game that year, but fell short to the Toronto Varsity Blues.
Six years later, the Lancers would avenge the loss in a winner-take-all game for third place of the OUA, as well as the last wild-card berth for the University Cup.
Most recently, the Lancers won the 2013 OUA West Semi-Finals in two straight games over the Guelph Gryphons. Seven players each from the Lancers and Gryphons are still on their respective rosters today, but there are two names from the Lancers side that will be circled for both teams; for differing reasons.
Spencer Pommells collected an assist and the winning goal in game one of the 2013 OUA West Semi-Finals. Pommells would follow up with the lone goal in game two, helping Parker Van Buskirk earn the 1-0 shutout and advancing the Lancers to the OUA West Finals.
Pommells has personified clutch throughout these playoffs. Two assists and an empty netter in game two followed a hat trick against the Lakehead Thunderwolves at Fort William Gardens in game one. The results delivered by Pommells are exciting for those who recall how essential he was in the previous meeting against the Gryphons.
While the Lancers stay hopeful about a fourth straight win against Guelph in the playoffs, the Gryphons will be merciless to get the first goal. The Gryphons have not scored on Van Buskirk in the playoffs since 2:35 of the second period in game one of the 2013 OUA West Semi-Finals. He will start game one of the OUA West Finals with a shutout streak of 97 minutes and 25 seconds against the Guelph Gryphons.
Jordan Mock was the assailant who broke through Van Buskirk in game one, back in 2013. The third-year forward posted 17 points in the 27 regular season games throughout the 2014-15 season. His notable moment in the playoffs so far was the winning goal in the decisive game three against the Waterloo Warriors.
The Gryphons have come so much further since then.
Backstopping the Gryphons is freshman Andrew D’Agostini. He’s spent time backing up current Waterloo net minder Mike Morrison with the OHL’s 2011-12 Peterborough Petes, the same goaltender he had to outperform to help the Gryphons move beyond the first round.
Despite the 3.17 GAA and a save percentage of .909, through six playoff games, D’Agostini’s sustainable performances have been the most central part of the Gryphons’ resurgence into the postseason.
The stage has been set, but what else makes this year special?
If not the fourth consecutive appearance in the West Finals by the Lancers or the surprising turnaround demonstrated by the Gryphons, in two straight series, what more could there possibly be to look forward to?
The Lancers are in their 50th season as a member of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Along with seven other teams, the University of Windsor’s men’s hockey program started in the 1964-65 season as part of the Ontario Intercollegiate Athletics Association. At the same time, the former Ontario Agricultural College returned to the Québec-Ontario Athletics Association after a one-year hiatus as the University of Guelph Gryphons.
The Lancers moved to the QOAA just before the 1968-69 regular season. The OIAA and QOAA would last two more seasons until disbanding in various directions before the 1971-72 season. Members of the OIAA and QOAA joined the teams of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence conference to form the Ontario University Athletics Association.
As both teams are in their 50th year of service, the Gryphons have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of despair, to remain a fighting contender in a season that has frequently seen them discounted. Meanwhile, the Lancers have assembled the best team ever at the University of Windsor in the last half-century.
It is tragic, yet poetic, that at this time of the year, only one team’s story will flourish into a thing of legend, while another’s will be cut uncharacteristically short and forever left speculated as to what could have been.
Puck drop for game one is Wednesday February 25th, 2014 at 7:30 PM. Mike Specht and Keifer MacDonald will have the game on OUA TV live from South Windsor Arena.