The Varsity Blues men’s hockey team faced off against the Windsor Lancers for their first game of the playoffs on Thursday. U of T has won four out of their last five games of the season to push themselves into fifth place.

The Lancers are 2-2 in their last four games, which included a 5-1 win over the Varsity Blues on February 8. This is the second time in CIS history that these two teams have met in the playoffs; their first meeting was in 1987, when the Lancers beat U of T.

The first period started out pretty evenly, with both teams playing physically and having a difficult time keeping the puck in their opponent’s zone. U of T’s Tyler von Engelbrechten received the first penalty of the game, giving Windsor a power play. The Varsity Blues were successful at keeping the puck to the outer perimeters of the defensive zone, preventing any real scoring chances for Windsor and successfully killing off the penalty.

Near the end of the Lancers’ first power play, the Blues were having a difficult time keeping the puck out of their own zone. Windsor was getting a lot of chances, but U of T’s goalie, Brett Willows, kept the puck out of the net. U of T’s inability to get the puck out of their zone resulted in the Blues’ second penalty of the game for high-sticking. The Lancers took advantage of their second power play and converted with a one-timer from defenceman Kenny Bradford to make the score 1-0.

Following the goal, U of T improved their play, getting a few shots and scoring chances, but Windsor’s goalie, Parker van Buskirk, successfully protected his net. With 6:39 left in the first period, Windsor’s Matt Beaudoin got a penalty, giving U of T their first power play. The Blues were having a tough time getting shots on net, largely because of the work of Lancers defenceman Julian Luciani. U of T ended the period with a 1-0 deficit and was outshot 18-8.

The second period began with a Blues power play after Luciani received two minutes for cross-checking. Hard work in the corner from Blues player Ernesto Valente got the puck up to defenceman Dylan Heide, who fired a shot that was tipped in by U of T captain Blake Boddy.

Following the goal, U of T began to play a better game overall, putting pucks on net and getting decent scoring chances. U of T’s first line of Boddy, Jeff Brown, and Valente was especially notable in the second period, getting plenty of scoring chances and keeping pressure on Windsor. U of T’s Corey Jackson earned a tripping penalty halfway through the period, only to have the penalties offset when Bradford received a roughing penalty in front of the U of T net after a scuffle.

U of T found themselves in penalty trouble after Heide was sent to the box for cross-checking. U of T successfully killed off the penalty by pressuring the Windsor power play, forcing them to give up the puck and allowing the Blues to clear the puck out of their zone. Following the penalty, however, Windsor began to turn the tables and was putting the pressure on U of T. The Lancers continued to get a lot of chances, finally scoring with 24 seconds left in the game. The Blues were playing sloppy in their own zone and coughed the puck up to Beaudoin, who sniped the puck in the top shelf, putting the Lancers up 2-1 at the end of the second. The shots at the end of the second period were 12-8 for Windsor.

The Blues were struggling on their power play, giving up the puck along the boards to Windsor’s Mike Christou. He started a 2-1 break, assisting Beaudoin, who scored a shorthanded goal, giving the Lancers a 3-1 lead. The shorthanded goal forced U of T’s coach Darren Lowe to call a timeout to make sure his team took advantage of the time left in the power play. The Blues continued to struggle for a decent scoring opportunity on their power play, but eventually found the back of the net halfway through the period, as defenceman Lane Werbowski scored on a one-timer from Brown, making the score 3-2. The Lancers took the game, however, and with it the three-game series lead of 1-0.

The Blues were struggling in keeping up the pressure on Windsor, getting only a few scoring chances. Windsor outshot U of T 47-27, having apparently successfully tired out the Blues.

Lowe thought his team’s ability to generate chances improved over the course of the game, despite only getting eight shots in the third period. “We didn’t play very well in the first, and in the second period we started generating scoring opportunities, and we had a bunch in the third, and we just didn’t put it in the net,” he said. “We just never had a good enough start and we made two mistakes that cost us the game.”

U of T goals came from only one line, composed of Brown, Valente and Boddy, while U of T’s top scorer, Michael Markovic, was left off the score sheet. Lowe thought that the line made up of Paul Van de Velde and the Dean Klomp was notable in his team’s performance, but said it was important to get the team’s top scorer at the top of his game, especially since the team’s next game is a win-or-go-home scenario.

On U of T’s loss, Boddy said, “A couple mental mistakes, really. One goal. We didn’t pick up their high guy and that pretty much made the difference. We have to win. And we went through the same thing last year where we lost at home, and went to game three and lost in overtime. So we […] have to put in a better effort, that’s all.”

Luciani, a Mississauga native, was pleased with his team’s efforts. “We executed our game plan, played physical, and wore out their defence,” he said. “We got to Toronto early and had some good rest so we had lots of energy. Best thing we can do now is look ahead and be prepared for game two and try and finish the series.”

Unfortunately, the Blues also fell short when they attempted to tie the series in Windsor on Saturday night.  They lost 5-2 and were consequently eliminated from the OUA playoffs, ending their season.