By Ankur Kumar
(BRAMPTON, ON) – With the University Cup playoffs looming, the CIS ranked 7th place McGill Redmen and 10th place Windsor Lancers have eerily close similarities. After both teams were ousted by last season’s eventual University Cup finalists, the Blue and Gold and Le Rouge et Blanc have taken mirroring journeys to the very moment that will define individual careers and team legacies.
A trip to the 52nd University Cup playoffs, hosted by the St Mary’s Huskies in Halifax, is the biggest goal of all. The winner of this Saturday’s OUA Bronze Medal will join seven other teams from Canadian Interuniversity Sport to contend for the highest trophy in Canadian collegiate puck.
The Lancers are chasing a second consecutive ticket after returning to the University Cup last season for the first time in 15 seasons.
The Redmen are hunting for their eighth reservation since 2006.
Both teams are trying to return to the tournament and improve upon their exits from the semi-finals last year, and the appetite has increased. Especially after falling short of their own expectations to return to the OUA’s Queen’s Cup finals.
After going 4-1 through the first and second playoff series, the OUA’s top divisional seeds were swept in the third round. The Lancers fell under the spell of the magical Guelph Gryphons and the Redmen produced just two goals during their back-to-back wallops at the hands of the UQTR Patriotes.
The second playoff interaction in OUA history between the Lancers and the Redmen follows their showdown at the 103rd Queen’s Cup last season. Despite the third place contest for the bronze medal, and the last OUA ticket to the University Cup, the OUA’s announcement earlier this week naming the major award winners in men’s hockey has catapulted the game to another level.
The Guards at the Gates
Last year’s Queen’s Cup would not have been a frequent reference throughout this season without recalling the performance by Windsor’s Parker Van Buskirk and McGill’s Jacob Gervais-Chouinard. Van Buskirk stopped 50 of 52 shots to earn MVP honours, especially during his fantastic display in the fading minutes of the game, when the Redmen narrowed the score to just one goal.
Van Buskirk furthered his success of last season by posting an OUA and CIS best 18-4-1, through 24 starts. He was also was named as the OUA West’s Goaltender of the Year, after leading the conference and the entire Canadian Interuniversity Sport with 18 wins.
As the Lancers conquered the West division, Jacob Gervais-Chouinard backstopped the Redmen toward a 21-5-0 accomplishment. Gervais-Chouinard managed his goals against average at 1.74 and a .944 save percentage to go along with that. Those figures warranted JGC as the OUA East’s Goaltender of the Year.
During their first encounter on January 31, 2014, Van Buskirk outplayed the rookie Gervais-Chouinard and led the Lancers to a 4-3 win. Gervais-Chouinard and the Redmen retaliated with a 6-2 crush of the Lancers the next night, settling the season series at one win each.
The sparring net minders were central to the 103rd Queen’s Cup, last March. The Lancers were one win away from their first conference title in 16 seasons and the Redmen attempted to make the best of their seventh appearance in nine seasons.
Evan Stibbard’s goal for the Lancers, 17 seconds into the game, was a highlight but, at the end of regulation, everyone praised Parker Van Buskirk’s 50 saves on 52 shots. It earned him Most Valuable Player Queen’s Cup accolades, along with the 3-2 win.
The Lancers and the Redmen reacquainted eight months later, on November 14. The Lancers put their 11 straight wins on the line during the best start to a men’s hockey season at the University of Windsor, but the Redmen denied the Lancers any chance of building upon the epic streak.
Gervais-Chouinard stopped 31 of the 32 shots launched his way and, more importantly for him, he evened the score with PVB.
With two wins against each other, this fifth and final meeting between Gervais-Chouinard and Van Buskirk will be a testament to both hockey teams.
The Lancers have risen to national attention unlike at any time during the 50 seasons of U of W hockey. In his best season as a Lancer, nothing would satisfy the senior Van Buskirk more than continuing the playoff run beyond the rinks of the OUA; and for the rest of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport to witness.
The 11th Hour
As Spencer Pommells messed with the West and raked in 50 points, Cedric McNicoll rounded out the top five in conference scoring with 34 points. Pommells strode exponentially ahead of the competition through 27 games in his last regular season with the Blue and Gold.
The MVPs of the OUA East and the OUA West each have 12 points and are tied for the playoff scoring lead. Pommells leads the goals category with six, while McNicoll, and fellow McGill teammate Jonathan Brunelle, lead all skaters with nine assists through seven playoff games.
In their last head-to-head match of their CIS careers, both Pommells and McNicoll have been comparably resourceful for their teams.
Nearly a year to the date of their last playoff meeting, Pommells and McNicoll continue to set the scoring race ablaze. The results of each team’s offense will rely on how well Pommells and McNicoll produce points. Each individual is a serious catalyst for the team’s success on the score sheet. At the final hour, it is time to prove that exact trait.
It will be the offensive match of the night, especially at the risk of the game being the last collegiate performance for one of the two senior players. It’s now or never in the last stand between the OUA’s Most Valuable Players.
When they meet for the face off, all the focus will be zoomed in on number 11 of the Blue and Gold and numéro onze of Le Rouge et Blanc.
The Defensive Duel
Just as McGill and Windsor represented the best goaltenders and forwards of the season, the triple threat by both division leaders was complete when Sam Labrecque and Kenny Bradford were named as defensemen of the year for the East and West divisions, respectively.
Labrecque led the entire Redmen squad during the regular season with 13 goals and finished first among the team’s defence with 22 points. After contributing only one assist in seven games, Labrecque had seven goals in the final five regular season games; an impressive streak started by a hat trick against the Queen’s Gaels.
Along with seven game winning goals during his freshman season, Labrecque took the overall goals scoring lead among defensemen in Canada.
It was the best segue for Sam Labrecque and the Redmen into the postseason. Labrecque is in second place to Pommells with five goals and leads all OUA skaters with four power play goals in the playoffs.
The Redmen currently boast a 34.8 % success rate on the power play, more than doubling the Lancers, who have gone 5 for 29 through seven playoff games and are graded by a 17.2 % so far. Now more than ever the Lancers need the success Bradford created in the regular season; he is the last variable to the equation of success for the Lancers.
Six of Bradford’s eight regular season goals were on the power play, just one shy of Labrecque’s lead among defenseman in the whole OUA. So far in the playoffs, Bradford has recorded three assists, but he must find the net and remind everyone he is the number one defenseman for the Windsor Lancers.
Neither competitor has contributed points since the first round. Without offensive production from reputable defenseman such as Labrecque or Bradford, securing the last OUA ticket to the University Cup will be impossible.
Bradford scored the game winning goal in last season’s Queen’s Cup championship win. Without Evan Stibbard and Mac McDonnell, Bradford will be looked upon to set the tone for what will feel like a head-to-head championship, instead of a consolatory third place game.
Here We Go
Those six players are the factors that will determine which team moves ahead to the University Cup in Halifax. They are the difference makers and now, more than ever, they are relied upon to lead the change.
With history in the making ,and tremendous pride on the line, these teams remind us why we love sport.
The Lancers and the Redmen will meet for the fifth time in 14 months and for the third straight occasion at South Windsor Arena. The puck drops at 8:00 pm EST, this Saturday, live on OUA TV.