Just two months ago, the Gryphon men’s hockey team was among the bottom-feeders in the OUA West division, heading into the holiday break dejected and wondering just what had gone wrong in the first half of their season.
2010, however, has been an entirely different story as the Gryphons have emerged in the second half as one of the most dominant teams in the league. That dominance carried through in their quarter-final playoff series against the Laurier Golden Hawks, as the Gryphons won the third and final game of the series, 3-2 in Waterloo, on Sunday night.
The Golden Hawks entered the playoff round as the favourite, having finished fourth in the West division during the regular season, while the Gryphons were fifth. Behind 31 saves from Scott Van Bommel and two points from Kris Belan, the Gryphons erased the Golden Hawks home-ice advantage on Thursday night with a 3-0 victory.
In Saturday’s second game of the series, however, the Gryphons were stonewalled by Hawks goaltender Jeff MacDougald who made 34 saves to give Laurier a 3-2 win, sending the series back to Waterloo for the third and decisive game on Sunday evening.
“The first game was a huge win for us,” said centre Thomas Kiriakou. “But in the second game, we weren’t as hungry for the puck and Laurier just wanted to battle more. We sat back in the first half of the game and they capitalized on everything.”
And in the final game, the Gryphon offence picked up the slack, beating MacDougald four times and adding an empty-netter as the Gryphons won 5-3. Captain Derek Knowles had three assists, Ed Gale scored twice, and the Gryphons didn’t take any team penalties to secure the series win, sending them to the next round. The semi-final will be another best-of-three series against Lakehead, which began last night in Guelph after the Ontarion went to press.
Arguably the two most critical factors that plagued the Gryphons in the first half of the season was a lack of goal-scoring up front and stability in net. Both of these deficiencies were solved after the winter break, however, as Van Bommel emerged as the number one goaltender, and the top line of Gale, Kiriakou and Belan established themselves as one of the most explosive and cohesive units in the league.
“A lot of us are new players and it doesn’t just take a couple of games to gel. For us, it took half a season,” said Kiriakou. “And with Scott (Van Bommel), you’re always going to get 200 per cent. He’s a small guy, maybe the smallest in the league, but he’s got the biggest heart and he’ll do whatever it takes to win. We know that and we have so much confidence in him.”
Kiriakou’s 32 points led the team and left him just outside of the top 20 in league scoring in just his rookie season. Belan’s team-leading 16 goals was good for tenth in the province and Gale was a constant playmaking threat who was more than willing to do the dirty work in the corners and create chances with his speed.
“(Head coach) Shawn Camp did a lot of line juggling and he found great chemistry between Kris, Ed and myself,” said Kiriakou. “We’ve also found great chemistry in our second, third and fourth lines. We have four very strong lines now.”
With the semi-finals underway, the Gryphons continue to be one of the more revered teams in the league and are now just steps away from a berth in the division finals.
“You only need seven [playoff] wins to win an OUA championship,” said Kiriakou. “We’ve got two right now. It’s going to be a great series.”