Published on The CIS Blog on January 2, 2014.
It’s been thirty years, but the Queen’s Golden Gaels finally find themselves back in the CIS Top 10 with OUA teams set to hit the ice again and enter the second half of the season. As the games begin to mean more and we come out of the turn and into the final stretch of the playoff push, here’s five of the biggest storylines from the conference over the first half, and that are worth watching as we begin the second.
Gaels on Top
It took until the eighth week for Queen’s to finally crack the top ten and take the eighth spot. In spite of three other OUA teams placing ahead of them in the voters’ eyes, the Gaels find themselves atop the conference standings with a two-point lead on #5 McGill. More impressively, despite racking up two losses in overtime and three as a result of shootouts, the Gaels remain undefeated in regulation, the only team in the OUA who can claim that (the only other in CIS is the #1 Calgary Dinos).
Head coach Brett Gibson has found success through a balanced attack, as not one player on the team finds themselves even in the top fifty of CIS scorers. Kelly Jackson, who leads the team with eight goals in fourteen games, only comes in tied for fifteenth in the OUA. Netminder Kevin Bailie, who previously played with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights, has also played a large part in the Gaels’ early success, boasting the third best save percentage in the country at .941, with an impressive 1.78 GAA to boot. It’s not as if Bailie’s had an easy go of things, either, with the team right in the middle of the OUA pack in terms of shots faced, yet second best in the nation in total goals against.
The other factor that was in the Gaels’ favour over the first half was a favourable schedule that put them at home nine times in fifteen games. They have a tough month ahead of them waiting in January, when they will play a dreadful seven road games which includes visits to two tough barns; McGill (7-1-0 at home this season) and Carleton (5-1-0). However, with RMC on the schedule twice, as well as games against UOIT, Laurier and Nipissing, and a pair against a lackluster Concordia team, Queen’s should find themselves with home-ice advantage in the first round for just the second time in Gibson’s eight-year term behind the bench.
Usual Suspects in their Usual Spots
With the exception of Queen’s, whose success, as highlighted above, is unprecedented to anyone born after Canada’s official adoption of the metric system, there really isn’t much difference in who the top contenders coming out of each conference will be. In six of the last seven regular seasons, Western and Lakehead have finished in the top three spots in the West, while McGill and UQTR have done the same in the East (the one year it didn’t happen, Lakehead finished fourth). With hot starts for all four teams this season, they all look poised to repeat the pattern yet again.
In the East, McGill and UQTR each have 11 wins going into the break, and with 23 and 22 points, respectively, hold the second and third spots in the division. McGill are being led by American-import offensive defenseman Ryan McKiernan, who has notched eight goals and 17 points in 15 games. Meanwhile, UQTR’s success is in part thanks to goaltender Marc-Antoine Gelinas, whose fourth nation-wide with an impressive .940 save percentage.
In the West, Lakehead are back at the top of the division with a solid 11-3-0 record heading into the break. Mike Hammond leads the Thunderwolves on offense with 18 points already this campaign. Western is also looking good again this year, currently tied for third in the West with 20 points. They’ve relied heavily offensively on Matt Clarke, who’s fourth in points and sixth in goals nationally, and Daniel Erlich, also tied in fourth with 25 points, but third in assists in the country.
All four teams look poised to take home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs and to make deep runs in pursuit of a University Cup appearance.
Woes in Waterloo
Coming into the season, the Waterloo Warriors were ranked fifth in the country. The ranking was surprising to some as it came off the heels of a, (truthfully) rather disappointing regular season where the Warriors squeaked into the playoffs with the sixth seed in the OUA West with a 12-11-5 record. They proceeded to have a wonderful playoff run, knocking off the favoured Lakehead Thunderwolves in a two-game sweep, sliding past first-place Western in a third and deciding game, and then taking out Windsor in two before falling to UQTR in the Queen’s Cup finals. The Warriors snuck into the University Cup by virtue of beating Windsor, and eked out a 2-1 win over Alberta before being blown out by Saint Mary’s.
Apparently, that was deserving of a number five ranking to kick off this season, the second highest ranking in the OUA (UQTR, last year’s OUA champions, were ranked only tenth). The season started out on a shaky foot, as Waterloo squeaked out one-goal wins over UOIT and Queen’s at home, before dropping three straight to divisional foes Windsor, York, and Western. Since then, the Warriors have been streaky, but the bad has outweighed the good, emphasized by an 8-2 thumping at the hand of Toronto, and a loss at home to Nipissing, in a game they were heavily favoured to win.
They were promptly booted out of the top ten by the fourth week, but still, it’s been a disappointing start for a team with high expectations. The first half ended on a positive note with a 6-2 victory over Carleton (after beating RMC by the same score the night previous), so head coach Brian Bourque better hope his team can pick up where they left off.
Chris Chappell has been a bright spot for the Warriors, as the former Saginaw Spirit forward leads the nation in goals, averaging one per game, and is tied for seventh in overall points. The Warriors will need to continue to find success on their top-ranked powerplay, and play better in the “big games” against divisional foes if they can turn this season around.
Meanwhile, players at the other end of University Avenue have had it even worse. The Laurier Golden Hawks, who managed a decent fifth-place finish in the West last year, find themselves in the basement this time around. The G-Hawks lost six of their first seven games, and while they’ve been steadily trying to climb out of the hole, they face a pretty steep climb if they hope to make the playoffs this season.
Two Tiers in the East?
The Golden Hawks might have an easier time in the other half of the league. It would appear that the East is suffering from a lack of parity this season, after the Laurentian Voyageurs’ entrance bumped the Rams and Varsity Blues westward. While the Golden Hawks have a measly 11 points through the first half, that record would be good enough for the seventh spot in the East, not to mention Laurier’s two games in hand over UOIT who sit one point ahead.
Of the 10 teams in the West, only two fall below .500 in terms of points percentage, contrasted with five in the East. However, when it comes to the remaining top teams in the East, the gap is enormous. While the top five teams understandably have an unblemished-in-regulation 14-0-1 record against the bottom five, their records against the West speak volumes. When the West has faced off against the East’s bottom five teams, they also have a commanding 38-8-0 record. However, when the West has faced off against the East’s top five, the record is 29-11-5 in favour of the Queen’s-McGill-UQTR-Ottawa-Carleton coalition.* With respect to the teams at the bottom of the East, especially as many of them are smaller schools still developing their programs, they face a difficult situation in trying to knock off the top five established schools. Further, as proven by the performance of the bottom five teams, it would appear that a top three finish in the East equals a much easier route to the second round than it does in the West.
*It should be noted here that the West vs. East records include single wins for Queen’s and UOIT over Ryerson, who forfeited two games due to a suspension handed down by university administration.
Toronto Rivalry Heating Up
After years of being split up, the three Toronto teams now find themselves battling it out in the West. Currently, the Ryerson Rams, Toronto Varsity Blues, and York Lions all find themselves in playoff contention, sitting in third, fifth, and sixth place, respectively.
Of course, the Varsity Blues and Lions have a long-held hateful rivalry that carries across all varsity sports. The rivalry between the blue & white and red & white is rooted in the historical traditions of both institutions, and their battles for supremacy in the city’s university athletics. However, Ryerson’s recent transformation that accompanied their renovation and move into Maple Leaf Gardens, and rise in success, has helped legitimize their program. It was less than a decade ago that Ryerson ended a five-season stint where they won just 11 games (from 2002-03 to 2006-07), and now that they’re a contender, with a high-profile, professional looking hockey program, they look poised to take over their intra-city rivals and insert themselves firmly into the rivalry conversation.
Each team has faced each other once thus far, and the Varsity Blues currently sit undefeated in those games. Early in the season, the Blues blew out Ryerson in a 7-3 thrashing, before taking down York on the road 4-2 just over a week later. In the remaining first half match-up, the Rams were able to withstand a late York attack and come away with a close 4-3 victory.
In the second half of the season, the rivalry continues with York heading to Maple Leaf Gardens to face Ryerson on the road on February 1, and then head to UT the next week. Meanwhile, Toronto make the short trip to Ryerson on Feb. 12 for the second last game of the year, in what should be an especially intense game with playoff implications at stake.
With just four points separating York from Ryerson and Toronto, this three-way rivalry should continue to heat up over the winter months and into the Queen’s Cup playoffs.