Guelph, Ont. – After claiming back-to-back McCaw Cup titles heading into last season, the Guelph Gryphons’ hopes at a three-peat were derailed in the second round. They return to the McCaw Cup final with hopes of reprising their championship streak, while their opponents – the Toronto Varsity Blues – will take part in the quest for the Cup final for the first time in over a decade. Recent championship experience may be on the side of this year’s hosts, therefore, but both teams enter the banner season festivities playing their best hockey of the year, which means that once the puck drops at the Gryphon Centre Arena, it is anyone’s game.
If a team were to draw up a dream run for the postseason, it would look very much like that of the Gryphons thus far in their quest for their third McCaw Cup in the last four years. As soon as the puck dropped on the opening round, it has been all systems go for the Gryphons in their two series since. The team’s vaunted offence and defence has been in full swing, with the latter shutting out the opposition in three of these four contests en route to a pair of sweeps over the Brock Badgers and Ryerson Rams, respectively.
This potent postseason should come as no surprise; however, as their impressive play has been very much in character for one of the nation’s top-10 teams. All season long, they have unleashed a pick-your-poison type of lineup from the crease-out. They were the best team on both offence (79 goals for) and defence (33 goals against) during the regular season and kept their foot on the gas pedal during this second season run as well, with the team now setting their sights on Toronto.
Not only do they boast one of the best goal-scorers in the province – Kaitlin Lowy (Toronto, Ont.; 13 goals) – they also have some of the most skilled passers to set up their praised attack, including Claire Merrick (Oakville, Ont.; 15 assists), Karli Shell (Lively, Ont.; 11 assists), and the aforementioned Lowy (12 assists). This postseason, however, it has been Merrick that has gone from passer to scorer, as five of her playoff-leading six points have come from finding the back of the net. The fourth-year forward’s production has been both plentiful and timely. She has put home the game-winner in all four of the team’s postseason contests thus far, showing that she has stepped up on the province’s biggest stage.
Merrick isn’t the only player shining under the bright lights; however, as she’ll line up against the other two members of the postseason’s top three scorers list. With three goals apiece in the playoffs, the pair of Kassie Roache (Corunna Ont.) and Jessica Robichaud (Whitby, Ont.) have buoyed the Varsity Blues thus far, and just like they have during the season, Toronto has been finding the back of the net with great consistency during their two series wins thus far. A hat trick from Roache in the opening round’s deciding game against Nipissing powered the streaking Blues to victory, while markers from Robichaud and Julia Szulewska (Mississauga, Ont.) in the team’s Game 3 win over Western carried them to their first championship clash since 2007-08. Certainly, the conference’s third-ranked squad is more than comfortable playing under pressure, but if they want to maintain their high level of production, they’ll need to do so against the conference’s Goaltender of the Year.
Certainly, the Guelph defence is among the best bluelines in the business, headlined by second-team all-star Laura Crowdis (Oakville, Ont.), but when talking about keeping the puck out of harm’s way, the conversation starts with Valerie Lamenta (Montréal, Que.). The fifth-year puck-stopper led the OUA in both goals-against average (1.24) and save percentage (.952) en route to her 10 wins this year, but she has found another level still since the page turned to the postseason. The senior goalie has racked up a 0.50 goals-against average and .980 save percentage and she’ll be relied upon to stand tall once again against that threatening Toronto offence, which is especially dangerous on the powerplay.
Toronto scored the third-most goals on the year (65), with over 35% coming on the powerplay (24). Their 25% success rate with the player advantage topped the pack and will surely be something they’ll look to parlay into continued success on the offensive end against Guelph. The team’s top two regular season scorers – Lauren Straatman (Thorndale, Ont.) and Roach – are unsurprisingly among those who have clicked most on the powerplay with five goals apiece, so if the team wants to put a kink in Guelph’s defensive prowess, they’ll need to not only secure these special teams opportunities, but capitalize on them when they come around.
On the flip side, the team’s penalty kill is also among the best in the province, ranking fourth overall (93.2%), and was also a big part of their stingy 1.90 GAA average as a team. For those stats, the team can largely thank the strong play of Erica Fryer (Amherstburg, Ont.) between the pipes, especially down the stretch, as the rookie goaltender found her footing in a big way to spearhead the Blues second half surge. This magical run, which saw them win eight straight games to start the semester, vaulted the team into championship contention as the regular season wrapped up, and they’ll look to put the cherry on top of their campaign with one more win on the provincial stage.
Toronto’s rookie puck-stopper was key in the teams’ respective regular season finales, with Fryer picking up the 16-save shutout for the Blues. The slim 1-0 win – with the lone goal coming unsurprisingly via the powerplay – was enough to even the season series with Guelph, after the Gryphons used a late third period goal from Miranda Lantz (Mildmay, Ont.) to secure the 3-1 victory back in their first meeting in November.
With one win apiece thus far in their head-to-head meetings, the provincial finale will serve as the rubber match for the Toronto Varsity Blues and Guelph Gryphons, but there will be more than just bragging rights on the line. Each side will put everything they have into the OUA season’s final 60 minutes, which should provide plenty of fireworks given the offensive and defensive skill from both teams, as each side plays for a chance to call themselves McCaw Cup champions.
Fans can catch all the action LIVE on oua.tv at 2:00pm on Saturday, March 9 from the Gryphon Centre Arena.