Hockey: A Guide to the OUA East

Matt Chesser, previously the sports editor and editor-in-chief of the McGill Tribune, now provides play-by-play for Redmen hockey and football games on SSN. He'll be writing about hockey for us, and today he has a review of the men's OUA East season so far.

For years, the OUA East has been a two-team conference.

Either the McGill Redmen or UQTR Patriotes have represented the OUA East at Nationals in 12 out of the last 13 years. Competitiveness has not been the conference’s strong point.

However, the OUA East’s lopsidedness might finally be starting to change.

While the Redmen have cruised to a 22-1-2 record this season, there are encouraging signs of life elsewhere in the top half of the conference. The upstart Nipissing Lakers have earned a top-ten ranking in just their second year of existence. The Carleton Ravens are the best unranked team in the country. Concordia and Ottawa have young teams that could develop into serious threats as early as next year. And UQTR has gone 16-8-1 despite playing poorly for much of the season.

Competitiveness is necessary if the OUA East is to thrive. Parity creates better hockey teams (just look at the AUS). Meanwhile, an OUA East team has not competed in a National Championship final in seven years — despite having a champion consistently ranked among the best teams in the nation. While a high degree of competitiveness has not truly emerged this season, one can hope that it’s finally on its way.

What follows is a year-to-date look at each of the ten teams in the OUA East.

Regular Season Record: 22-1-2
Games Remaining: @ Carleton, vs. Ottawa, @ Concordia
Key Players: C Alex Picard-Hooper (10G, 41A), LW Francis Verreault-Paul (28G, 14A), D Marc-Andre Dorion (7G, 28A)

Season in brief: The only OUA East team with a shot at a National Championship.

Comments: It’s National Championship or bust for the Redmen this season. McGill has never won a University Cup, despite qualifying for Nationals in four out of the last five seasons. However, a pair of exhibition losses to AUS teams over the Christmas break (a 7-1 shellacking by UNB and a 6-5 OT loss to St. F-X) hurts their assertion that this year will be different than the last.

However, neither the exhibition losses, nor McGill’s first regulation loss of the season on Saturday, should detract from the remarkable year the Redmen have had. The team has already tied the school record for victories in a regular season, and sit second in both the national top-10 rankings and in RPI. McGill can also boast the CIS leaders in points, Alex Picard Hooper (51), and goals, Francis Verreault-Paul (28), as well as the best defenceman in the CIS — Marc-Andre Dorion.

Keep an eye on: The leg injury that has sidelined Verreault-Paul for four games, and will likely cause him to miss Saturday’s rematch with Carleton. McGill’s playoff success hinges on the health of their explosive top-line winger.

Regular Season Record: 16-7-3
Games Remaining: vs. Toronto, @ Toronto
Key Players: LW Andrew Marcoux (15G, 14A), D Paul Cianfrini (5G, 15A), G Matt Hache (.915 SV%)

Season in brief: Nipissing enjoys one of the easiest schedules in the CIS, but it has nevertheless been an impressive season for the second-year program.

Comments: The success of the Nipissing Lakers is the best story of the season in the OUA East. In the program’s second year of existence, Coach Mike McParland has guided the Lakers to a guaranteed top-four finish in the OUA East, and an appearance in the CIS Top 10 (at #10 this week). (*Correction appended.) Hard to put too much stock in their top 10 ranking, however, when Nipissing hasn’t played a team with a winning record since they were outscored 14-4 in two games against Lakehead back in mid-November.

Keep an eye on: The crowded crease. Goaltender Matt Hache has been a great story this year, posting a 12-4 record and a .915 save percentage, despite losing his father to cancer in October. He’s established himself as the clear number-one goaltender, but if he were to falter there are three guys behind him waiting to pick up the slack. Former Calgary Hitmen netminder Daniel Spence was recently added to the roster and stopped 27 of 29 shots to pick up a win against Queen’s on Saturday. Behind him are Billy Stone (.923 SV%) and Kyle Cantlon (.905 SV%), who have both looked solid in limited action.

Regular Season Record: 16-8-1
Games Remaining: vs. Concordia, @ Carleton, vs. Ottawa
Key Players: C Olivier Donovan (12G, 21A), RW Francis Charland (15G, 10A), D Pierre-Luc Lessard (4G, 24A)

Season in brief: An off year for the perennial powerhouse.

Comments: After finishing first in the OUA East for four consecutive years, the Patriotes have struggled through an uncharacteristically inconsistent season. Their special teams should take most of the blame for the drop-off from last year, when they had the best powerplay and second-best penalty kill units in the OUA East. This year their powerplay is ranked ninth in the OUA, and their penalty kill is second worst in the 19-team league. Nonetheless, they have an extremely deep group of forwards, led by Olivier Donovan and Francis Charland, and could still finish in second place.

Keep an eye on: The play of goaltender Jean-Christophe Blanchard. Last season, Blanchard was an OUA East First Team All-Star with a .924 save perecentage. This year his save percentage has dropped down to .892. He’s been even worse in tough games — against teams with a winning record he has a .867 save percentage. If he continues his run of poor play the Patriotes don’t have a hope of occupying their traditional spot in the conference final.

Regular Season Record: 15-7-2
Games Remaining: @ Ottawa, vs. McGill, vs. UQTR, @ Concordia
Key Players: F Brandon MacLean (12G, 22A), F Joey Manley (16G, 17A), G Matthew Dopud (.913 SV%)

Season in brief: The OUA East club with the best chance of spoiling McGill's championship aspirations.

Comments: In my opinion, Carleton is the second-best team in the OUA East. Their win over McGill last weekenddepleted roster or not — was no fluke, as the Ravens have outshot the Redmen in all three games between the teams this season. Carleton has an excellent top-six forward group, good goaltending, and will hit you until you’re black-and-blue. No other team scares McGill as much as the Ravens.

Keep an eye on: Their defence. They won’t beat you on the scoreboard — they’ve combined for only 59 points this season (a far cry from the 96 points put up by McGill’s defencemen) — but they’re superb in their own end. Carleton has held opponents to only 59 goals in 24 games, which is tied for best in the OUA with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs.

Regular Season Record: 12-11-2
Games remaining: @ UQTR, vs. Carleton, vs. McGill
Key Players: C Charles-Antoine Messier (12G, 22A), D Jesse Goodsell (5G, 19A), D Kiefer Orsini (6G, 14A)

Season in brief: Bullying Stingers won’t do much damage this season, but sophomore stars should be good next year.

Comments: After posting a dismal 8-16-4 record last season, the Stingers seem to be back on track. Concordia has a promising core of sophomore forwards led by Alex Monahan, George Lovatsis, and Charles-Antoine Messier — a former fifth-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks. The mid-season additions of Mike Stinziani and Francois Lanctot-Marcotte have also paid dividends — with the duo combining for 24 points in just 19 games. But the Stingers have focused on intimidation more than skill this year, and lead the OUA with 633 PIM (and also lead the unofficial category “stupid penalties per game”).

Keep an eye on: The Stingers’ bruising top-two defencemen. Sophomore Jesse Goodsell and freshman Kiefer Orsini are going to be a force in the OUA East in future years. They’ve combined for 44 points and 196 PIM in 47 games this season.

Regular Season Record: 11-11-3
Games Remaining: vs. Carleton, @ McGill, @ UQTR
Key Players: F Luc Blain (16G, 33A), F Kyle Ireland (18G, 25A), D Dominic Jalbert (7G, 19A)

Season in brief: The future is bright, as the Gee-Gees boast three of the top candidates for CIS Rookie of the Year.

Comments: Coach Dave Leger has to be commended for his recruiting work this summer, as the Gee-Gees are loaded with the three best rookies in the OUA. Luc Blain and Kyle Ireland sit second and third, respectively, in the CIS scoring race, while Dominic Jalbert is third in scoring among OUA defencemen. After finishing last in the league one year ago, Ottawa has some hope for the future. They’ll need some help on defence, and a legitimate starting goaltender, before they can think of getting past the first round though.

Keep an eye on: Subway pitchman Dominic Jalbert. The smooth-skating rookie defenceman is already in contention for the title of best offensive defenceman in the OUA East, alongside McGill’s Dorion and UQTR’s Lessard.

Regular Season Record: 9-10-6
Games Remaining: @ Nipissing, vs. Nipissing, @ Queen's
Key Players: LW Byron Elliott (8G, 18A), G Andrew Martin (.903 SV%)

Season in brief: Maddeningly inconsistent.

Comments: The Varsity Blues have wins over Western, Carleton, Laurier, and Nipissing this season. Those are all very good teams. But the Varsity Blues have also lost to RMC twice. RMC has won four games this season — they are not a very good team.

Keep an eye on: Byron Elliott. He finished fourth in OUA scoring last year, and is averaging almost 1.5 points per game this year. He’s currently riding an eleven-game point streak.

Regular Season Record: 10-11-3
Games Remaining: vs. Ryerson, @ RMC, vs. Ryerson, vs. Toronto
Key Players: F Joey Derochie (8G, 14A), D Alexi Pianosi (6G, 10A)

Season in brief: A disappointing year, if we go by the preseason standard set by Coach Brett Gibson when he told the Kingston Whig-Standard that “anything less than a top-four finish in the OUA East and at least one playoff series victory would be disappointing.”

Comments: The Gaels aren’t going to accomplish either of their preseason goals. This is partly due to injury troubles — they’ve played ten games without their best forward Payton Liske — but also due to some painful sophomore slumps. Forward Jordan Mirwaldt and defenceman Stephane Chabot have both regressed after making the OUA East All-Rookie team last year, while second-year goaltender Steele De Fazio has been middling after a solid freshman campaign. Their penalty kill has also been brutal — at 70 per cent it’s last in the OUA.

Keep an eye on: The race to stay out of eighth. While the student body might welcome a “Kill McGill” first round series, the Gaels would love to stay away from the Redmen — who’ve outscored them 13-5 in two meetings the season. With the easiest remaining schedule of any OUA East team, the Gaels could finish as high as fifth.

Regular Season Record: 8-16-1
Games Remaining: @ Queen's, @ RMC, @ Queen's
Key Players: LW Matt Schmermund (12G, 11A), RW Cory Konecny (7G, 8A)

Season in brief: Ten losses in a row ended the Rams’ season before American Thanksgiving.

Comments: After upsetting Toronto in the first round of last year’s OUA East playoffs, it’s been a rough year for Ryerson. A month-long, ten-game losing streak effectively killed any chance they had a qualifying for the playoffs by mid-November. Injuries to captain Marcus Booth, and top-line forward Cory Konecny didn’t help, but the Rams’ have been bad in almost every facet of the game. Their powerplay has been particularly atrocious — it’s operating at just 11.3 per cent efficiency this season.

Keep an eye on: The progress of this. I can’t wait.

Regular Season Record: 4-21-1
Games Remaining: vs. Queen's, vs. Ryerson
Key Players: F Landon Lavictoire (9G, 18A), F Justin Lim (12G, 8A)

Season in brief: In 14 road games this season RMC has not earned a single point.

Comments: Rob summarized the difficulties of putting together a successful team at RMC earlier this week. On top of those challenges, Coach Adam Shell has been playing with nine forwards and four defencemen for most of 2011 due to injuries and eligibility restrictions. That’s impossible to overcome.

Keep an eye on: Western, because (easy joke ahead) if RMC beat them, how good could they be?

*Correction: This article originally referred to the ranking of the Nipissing Lakers in the CIS Top 10 as their "first-ever appearance" in the national rankings. In fact they were first ranked in the top ten in October, 2009.
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