Teams can sometimes be put in difficult situations because of their success, and that’s exactly what has happened with the men’s hockey team.
Having their best season in years, with a veteran-laden roster sitting near the top of the OUA, the final stretch of the regular season should be a time for fine-tuning and small adjustments.
As a direct result of the success of the team and the program, Gaels players Slater Doggett, Eric Ming, Spencer Abraham and Kevin Bailie, along with their head coach Brett Gibson, are with the Canadian national team at the Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan — part of an U Sports all-star team representing Canada at the competition.
“There’s no question it’s been challenging,” said assistant coach Tony Cimellaro, who’s taken on more responsibilities in Gibson’s absence. “It hurts us more than a team like UQTR who has more depth,” he added, but while the players lost can’t be replaced, the team takes pride in its recruiting and ability to fill roster spots from within.
“We expect everyone to be ready and to contribute, no excuses,” defenceman Jake Clements said. “Everyone has to take their game to the next level,” he said, whether it’s the first line or fourth line, some players are going to be seeing more ice time.
One of the keys for the team being able to maintain continuity in light of key absences — behind the bench and on the ice — is the system that has been put in place. Both Cimellaro and Clements highlighted this, pointing out that the structure of how the team plays hasn’t changed, some roles are just filled by different players. And while they’re missing three of their top four scorers, this isn’t seen as too much of an issue.
“We’re not designed to win games 6-5. We’ll struggle a bit to score up front, but overall not too much changes,” Cimellaro said. Having allowed the
second-fewest goals in the OUA, sticking to the system is a sound strategy. “We’re looking to win the same way,” Clements said. “We’ve always won based on structure, having a tight system — we just have to play even tighter [defense] than before.”
Of course, to make the system work at a close approximation of where it was at full strength, other players will have to step up and take on larger roles. Cimellaro noted that forward Dylan Anderson, who has shifted from the wing to centre, has had a “fantastic” last two games, with his line carrying the play in the defensive zone.
But the player who has probably had to step up the most is goalie Jake Brennan. While he had started about a third of the Gaels’ games during the season, with Bailie’s departure, Brennan is now the number one goalie. Posting a 2-1 record — prior to Thursday night’s Carr-Harris Cup — with Bailie in Kazakhstan, Brennan is enjoying a solid season, highlighted by a shutout over first-place McGill.
Usually as a backup, Brennan’s numbers place him with the league’s best — he’s second in both goals against average and save percentage.
During all of this, Brennan says his mindset hasn’t changed too much. “It’s my job to stop the puck, and for now I’ve got the opportunity to do it every night.” Not suffering a setback in net has been crucial for the Gaels to be able to keep relying on their defensive system.
While there’s no question that the team has faced challenges as a result of their key absences, there’s also no frustration or disappointment at this.
“It goes without saying we’re proud of those guys,” Clements said. “We fully support them going there and hope they do well.”
This was echoed by Coach Cimellaro, who feels that the chance to represent their country, and learn from playing and coaching with the best, can only help the team. At the end of the day, this Gaels team is
well-equipped to handle the difficulties of being without their coach and top players.
Gibson and Cimellaro have been coaching together for many years, making for a seamless transition within the system, and the players are prepared to step up and play bigger roles as needed. While a late-season shakeup such as this one may not have been the ideal situation for the Gaels, they are embracing it, thriving in it, and expect to come out better because of it.
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