Varsity Blues sweep Ryerson Rams to advance in playoff run

The Varsity Blues men’s hockey team defeated the Ryerson Rams 2–1 and 6–4 this past week to win their first Ontario University Athletics (OUA) West quarter-final series since the 2006–2007 season.

GAME 1 — MATTAMY ATHLETIC CENTRE

The Blues were outshot 18–10 in the opening frame of Game 1, but led 2­–1 after 15 minutes thanks to two goals by forward Russell Turner.

Turner opened the scoring at the halfway mark of the period with an excellent deflection over Ryerson goaltender Troy Passingham’s outstretched glove.

Undeterred, the Rams answered right back, scoring just 43 seconds later. Ryerson forward Jason Kelly forced a turnover behind the U of T goal with a strong forecheck, and star forward Mitch Gallant converted on the ensuing feed to the slot.

Three minutes later, Turner scored the eventual game-winner. Veteran forward Tyler Liukkonen walked out from the corner and found Turner open at the far faceoff dot. The sophomore corralled Liukkonen’s feed, and then snapped a shot far-side past Passingham for his second of the night, much to the delight of the strong contingent of U of T fans in attendance.

Turner was excellent, but the hero of Wednesday evening’s match (and, indeed, the series) was veteran goaltender Brett Willows, who turned out a performance for the ages, stopping 49 of the 50 shots he faced. The second and third frames saw the Manitoban make save after save to secure the 2­–1 road victory, earning the admiration of Blues and Rams fans alike.

Following the series, sophomore defender Charlie Connell, who was also a standout in Game 1, had nothing but praise for his netminder: “[Willows] has been huge as always, making massive stops, especially in the third [period] when we really need him.”

The Blues were outchanced in the opening game, but outworked the Rams with a relentless forecheck – something that Connell stressed as a key to the team’s success – and timely shotblocking.

A thrilling road win behind them, the Blues kept up their unyielding forecheck and wore the Rams down in the second game.

GAME 2 — VARSITY ARENA

The teams traded goals in the opening 40 minutes, with the Rams entering the third frame up 4–3. In the final period, the Blues took advantage of a tired Ryerson defence.

Five minutes into the frame, star forward Michael Markovic scored on a wrap-around following some excellent offensive-zone work by fan favorite Dean Klomp. With Ryerson’s best players visibly drained, U of T poured on the pressure, and veteran defender Lane Werbowski scored on a screened point shot just three minutes later.

The momentum on their side, the Blues sealed the victory with slightly under four minutes remaining. Forward Christian Finch set up fellow Clarkson University transfer Patrick Marsh on a 3-on-2, and Marsh snapped a quick shot just over Passingham’s left pad to send Varsity Arena into a frenzy.

The Blues were excellent defensively in the closing minutes, and Willows shut the door to prolong his club’s season.

This year’s regular season was doubtless a trying one for the Varsity Blues. The team began the season with just four wins in their first 13 games and appeared destined for the first playoff miss in a quarter-century.

Instead, the team is playing its best hockey in recent memory; everyone is contributing offensively, team defence is stellar, and Brett Willows has elevated his game to new heights.

Fans have reason to be confident about U of T’s chances in their second round match-up against the sixth-ranked Guelph Gryphons.

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