All-GTA regular season finale puts playoff positioning and berth on the line

Photos by Martin Bazyl / Placide Ilunga
Photos by Martin Bazyl / Placide Ilunga

BURLINGTON, Ont. – The Ontario University Athletics (OUA) men’s hockey regular season schedule wraps up this weekend and it won’t come without some dramatics. For one team in particular, their playoff lives may be on the line, as the Toronto Varsity Blues will look to topple the reigning OUA champion York Lions and secure their place in the upcoming postseason.

While the teams may be separated by 10 points in the OUA West Division standings, this matchup should bring a thrilling end to regular season action, with plenty left to be determined. Entering the final weekend of play, the Varsity Blues (11-14-1) hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West – tied in points with Windsor – while the Lions (16-9-1) find themselves in a tightly-bunched top four. But with so much on the line, there’s no telling how this one will play out.

The two GTA combatants are well-acquainted with each other, having met twice already this season, but neither team has held the decisive advantage in the season-series to date. In fact, both teams have come away with a win this year, with the Lions proving victorious in October and Toronto claiming the win just one month ago.

Both games have been closely-contested throughout, with the ultimate final scores being largely influenced by late-game, empty net tallies. In York’s 4-1 victory, a pair of goals by Reid Jackman in the second and third frame gave the Lions a two-goal cushion, before Toronto’s Louis Kereakou cut the lead in half with just eight minutes to play. An empty-netter and last minute power play marker put the game out of reach in what was otherwise a scintillating tilt.

For an encore in January, the Varsity Blues flipped the script to jump out to a two-goal lead, with goals from Justin Brand and Matt Campagna, in what turned out to be a five-goal second period that left Toronto up 3-2. A goal each in the final frame pushed the score to 4-3 before Hunter Atchison found the empty net with just one second to play to give the Blues a 5-3 win in yet another brilliant battle. 

Not only was that latest win a strong showing in and of itself, it has also helped jolt the Varsity Blues back into the playoff picture, as that game marked the team’s first of seven wins in a span of nine games. Toronto is peaking at the right time, clawing their way back to a postseason spot after what initially appeared destined to be a repeat of last year when the Blues earned just five wins. So while the team limped to the finish line to the end 2017 calendar year, they have been shot out of a cannon in 2018 and will look to put a feather in their regular season cap with another big win over York.

To do so, they’ll undoubtedly look for goaltender Andrew Hunt to continue his impressive play. Hunt has shut the door on the opposition of late, a stretch that has culminated in an active shutout streak of almost 150 minutes. In front of Hunt, who now sports a 1.84 GAA and .931 SV%, the Blues will rely on the trio of Atchison (11 goals), Campagna (8 goals), and Aidan Wallace (8 goals) to tackle the bulk of the scoring, as the trio have combined for over 40% of the team’s goals this season.

Despite success from these three, the team as a whole sits 17th in goals per game in the OUA. Their success at finding the back of the net, however, has grown leaps and bounds throughout the season, vaulting from just 1.80 in October all the way to 3.88 in January; something they’ll need to keep up if they want to turn their late-season push into playoff success.

It won’t be an easy task to continue their current scoring clip; however, as they’ll once again go toe-to-toe with one of the best the OUA has to offer. The Lions as a whole sit 4th in the conference in goals against (2.73), thanks to the dynamic sophomore duo of Mack Shields (2.32 GAA, .928 SV%) and Alex Fotinos (2.57 GAA, .922 SV%). Not only is the team sharp between the pipes, but the Lions are also able to close the door when playing a man down. York checks in with a potent penalty kill of 88.1% (2nd in OUA), which has also played a key role in helping to limit their opposition’s offense and helping them find success as a defensively-driven squad.

While York doesn’t boast a 20-point player this season, the Lions do offer an incredibly balanced attack to keep teams on their toes, which has helped their offense rank in the middle of the OUA pack. Forwards Scott Feser and Josh LaFrance have each found the back of the net 10 times, while Jackman, Trevor Petersen, and Colton Vannucci have combined for another 25 tallies as the team’s leading point-getters. All-in-all, the Lions offer 11 players who have notched double-digit points – including three defensemen – suggesting that Toronto will have their hands full on the defensive front.  

Beyond just the current skill of the Lions, however, comes their ability to rely on experience. Not only does York know how to win in the regular season – something they have done not only this season, but last year as well (18-6-4) – but in the postseason as well. They are battle-tested and know what it takes to earn the big wins, making any game a tough one against the reigning Queen’s Cup champions.

It will be quite the contest to wrap up the regular season, and once puck drops at Canlan Ice Sports York on Saturday night at 7:00pm, it’s anyone’s game. For fans that can’t make it in person to see the York Lions host the Toronto Varsity Blues, be sure to check it out live on OUA.tv, which can also be streamed live using Apple TV, Roku, Android TV, or Amazon Fire.