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REDMEN HOCKEY PREVIEW: Redmen have CIS title in the crosshairs

Despite key personnel losses, the McGill Redmen hockey team is set to make a run at their third straight OUA East division title. More importantly, the Redmen hope to get another shot at the CIS Nationals after last year’s campaign ended in heartbreak.

Although the loss of star forward Doug Orr and last year’s captain Pierre-Antoine Paquet stings, Head Coach Martin Raymond remains optimistic. Raymond (159-85-23 in regular season play) is returning for his twelfth season in charge and believes that the Redmen can look at last year as a learning experience.

“Last year we realized that we can do it, but at the same time we remember that it was quite a challenge,” Raymond said.

While the players are eager to get another shot at a national championship, they understand that all of last season’s accomplishments have put pressure on this year’s team to deliver. Fortunately, pressure is what one makes of it and the Redmen understand that it can be used as a motivational tool.

“We can’t sit on what we’ve done last year,” said defenseman David Urquhart. “We’re lucky that we’re at the point now to be part of a winning tradition.”

Speed and size upfront

McGill will carry 16 forwards on their roster-six centres and 10 wingers-including four rookies. The loss of Orr and his 21 points will certainly hurt but that’s not to say goals will be hard to come by for this group. Veteran Shawn Shewchuck, who led the Redmen in goals (11) and points (33) in 2005-2006, returns for another year, as do fellow snipers Mathieu Leclerc (20 points), Benoit Martin (20 points) and Charles Gauthier (18 points).

The Red ‘n’ White will have speed to burn with players such as Martin, Eric L’Italien and Chris Churchill-Smith in the lineup. McGill’s explosive offence also features some grit, in the form of third year forward Teddy Kyres, who’s been known to send McConnell Arena into a frenzy with punishing body-checks. Rookies Leonard Verrili, Benoit Arsenault, Vincent Lambert and Jeremy Burgess, meanwhile, will try to forge themselves a spot on this deep and talented unit.

New rules hamper defence

The biggest challenge this squad will face is adjusting to rule changes. The CIS has decided to follow the NHL’s lead in their strict enforcement of clutch and grab penalties. Generally, this favors forwards over defensemen, who will have to play a much more disciplined game if they want to stay out of the box. While the new rules may not require the Redmen to change their defensive system, it will certainly change how one-on-one battles along the boards are fought.

McGill boasts a lineup of seven defensemen, six of which are returnees. Urqhart-who last year led all OUA defensemen with 24 points-brings his crisp passing and powerful slap shot back to quarterback what promises to be a potent power play unit. Joining Urqhart on the blue line will be fellow junior Steve Pearce along with sophomores Erik Stilling, Yan Turcotte, Ken Morin, Louis-Simon Allaire and Benoit Lessard. Rookie Ben Gazdic joins the established defence that gave up a league low 29 goals against in 2005-2006.

Top goalie in the nation

Also returning for his third year is CIS all-star Mathieu Poitras. In addition to winning the Bill L’Heureux Trophy in 2005-’06 as the most outstanding player in the OUA, Poitras also led the CIS in goals against average (1.40), save percentage (.947), and wins (14). Additionally, Poitras set a CIS record for most shutouts in a season with seven.

Even when Poitras needs a rest, the Redmen can still expect outstanding goaltending from backup Jean-Michel Filiatrault, a former Rimouski Oceanique who recorded an astounding five shutouts in just seven starts. The goaltending tandem combined to set CIS single-season records for both lowest goals against average (1.21) and total shutouts (12). Rookie Jake Jarvis will be hard-pressed to earn himself anything more then target practice duties this season.

Redmen to challenge for supremacy

McGill should be able to repeat as division champions if last year’s experience can be used as a positive learning tool. Despite the departures of a few players on offence, the Redmen still have the skill, size and determination to be a scoring machine in 2006-2007. However, while the forwards will benefit from the new CIS rules, the defensemen might find it difficult to adjust. Even when mistakes are made, though opposing forwards will have a hard time putting the puck past McGill’s stellar goaltenders. It is for these reasons that the fantasy of McGill winning a national championship could very well become a reality in 2007.

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