TORONTO - It was a much closer series than expected but the Ryerson Rams men's hockey team prevailed in a physical do or die game three to defeat the Waterloo Warriors 3-1 and officially book their ticket to the OUA West semifinal.
Another tight checking effort from the Warriors stifled the OUA's top scoring team to just three goals in the deciding game three, but failed to get the necessary puck traffic in order to get Rams' starting netminder Charlie Graham off his game.
Despite only facing a grand total of 14 shots, Graham made a number of key saves when they mattered most and was the undying support the Rams needed defensively in order to push the pace offensively.
"You look back at Charlie's junior days and every time he comes off of what may be perceived as not his 'A' game, he always bounces back and gives you a real solid effort," said interim head coach Johnny Duco regarding the play of his netminder. "I thought tonight that was no different. He was sharp right from the get go. He wasn't bobbling rebounds. He was square to everything and when he looks like that back there, the guys have a lot of confidence."
Warriors' Mike Morrisson was equally as impressive between the pipes and made 17 saves in the loss. His play throughout the series was well deserving of the Warriors' MVP, but in the end, the Rams' transition offence was just too much to contain.
The line of Matt Mistele, Josh Sterk, and Michael Fine combined for five of the Rams' six goals heading into game three, and it didn't take long for them to add to their significant post-season contribution.
Sterk opened the scoring with a power play marker assisted by non other than Mistele and Fine. Fine fed a low pass to Mistele at the side of the net, who found a streaking Sterk far side for the no doubter. Sterk's fourth of the post-season gave the Rams a much needed boost and gave them a 1-0 lead less than five minutes into the opening frame.
The Rams continued to press in the period. A Stephen Silas cross-checking infraction put the Warriors down a man in which they narrowly survived. The Rams failed to capitalize on the man advantage but stole back some crucial momentum as they hemmed the Warriors in their own zone. Eventually, the Rams pressure proved to be too much, and allowed Brandon Devlin to creep in and snap home a wrist shot for the 2-0 lead. Devlin went the entire 28 game regular season without registering a goal, but all of that quickly disappeared after the huge post-season marker Saturday night.
The Rams appeared to be sitting comfortably with a two-goal lead twenty minutes in. With that being said, the Rams looked comfortable up 3-0 in game two a night prior, but allowed the Warriors to score four unanswered, and evidently the game winner in OT to push a game three Saturday.
With the Rams in apparent control, the Warriors caught a lucky break thanks to top scorer Zac Coulter. Coulter was left alone in front and whacked home his own rebound to cut the lead to one, and just like that, the heartbeats of the Rams began to flutter.
With only twenty minutes remaining in a do-or-die game three, the Rams pushed in hopes of adding to their lead, while the Warriors searched for the equalizer to keep their season alive. And with just over five minutes left in the third, the game delivered with its final compelling moment.
Fine blasted down the near sidewall and rifled a perfectly placed shot over the shoulder of Morrison for the Rams' third goal of the game. The Warriors pressed with the goalie pulled in the final moments, but solid play from Graham and the Rams' defensive corps sealed the deal as they held on to a 3-1 game three series clinching victory.
With Fine and Sterk finding twine again in game three, the Rams' top line now has 7 of their nine post-season goals. Their offensive contribution isn't quite a surprise after their impressive regular season as a whole. Their experience as a unit is proving to be extremely vital for the Rams moving forward this post-season.
"We know Sterk's a gamer. He's a competitive guy. He's a fast, highly skilled hockey player and, you know, at any point he can be a game breaker. That's what we've come to expect from him," said Duco following the win. "And you look at him, he has lots of junior, OHL playoff experience and I think with him, Mistele and Fine, these guys have been through the ringer in OHL playoffs. You saw that character and that resiliency show there late in the game."
With the self-destruction had in game two of the series, you couldn't help but feel nervous when Coulter managed to cut the lead in half mid-way through the second. This time however, the Rams managed to contain the desperation delivered by the Warriors and kept the pedal to metal en route to victory.
"Foot on the gas. At no point can we sit back and try to protect a lead. That's not the type of team that we are," said Duco. "We need to keep the pedal to the metal, keep skating and working. Keep doing the things that make us successful and the boys did a great job of executing."
The Rams will use this tough opening series as a learning experience to better themselves moving forward. The physical Windsor Lancers are waiting for them in the wind for a second round meeting, in what is destined to be another tough and grueling series in these OUA playoffs.
"It was a tough series and definitely a great test for us going into the playoffs as a relatively young team and coming off of a very successful season. We knew it was going to be a battle but until you start facing a little bit of adversity, you realize how tough playoff hockey can be in this league," said Duco. "Go out, have fun, execute our game plan and we should be fine in this building."
The OUA West semifinal is scheduled to start up on Wednesday, February 22, likely in Windsor. Stay tuned to ryersonrams.ca for all playoff schedule updates.
Source: Ryerson Rams