The Canadian Press, Matt Smith/CFL.ca
If this feels familiar, there’s a good reason for it. The Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats will dance a fourth and final time this season in Saturday’s Eastern Semi-Final. The Als hosted the Ticats at Molson Stadium to close out their respective regular season schedules, with the Als pulling out a 22-20 win this past Saturday, which gave them a sweep in their three-game season series.
The Als’ wins against the Ticats go further back than that. It was this time last year that the Als hosted the Ticats in the Eastern Semi-Final. While both rosters were much different at that point, coach Jason Maas’ Alouettes topped coach Orlondo Steinauer’s Tiger-Cats and earned the right to move on to the Eastern Final, where the Toronto Argonauts awaited.
A year later, what’s old is new again, as the winner of Saturday’s game will head back to BMO Field, looking to unseat the Argos as East Division champions. While the teams are the same from last year, the dynamics around the opening game of the 2023 playoffs are very different. Here are three storylines to follow as we get ready for the playoffs to kickoff.
A two QB system
Bo Levi Mitchell was a big topic of conversation for the TSN panel on Saturday night. He was 5-10 for 53 yards in the action he saw against the Als, leaving the panel wanting for what they’d hoped they’d see out of the veteran QB in his final regular season game. The expectation, externally at least, has been that Mitchell was being eased back into action for an increased playoff workload. While Mitchell’s numbers have been somewhat underwhelming since his return from injury — he’s made 22-35 passes for 266 yards, three touchdowns and an interception through three games — his championship experience is what the team signed him for at the start of this year.
On Tuesday, Ticats’ head coach Orlondo Steinauer didn’t say that Mitchell wouldn’t start this week, but he did say that he’ll use both Mitchell and backup Matthew Shiltz.
— Rick Zamperin (@rickzamperin) October 31, 2023
The one positive for the Ticats through their injury-riddled season is that they’ve managed to get their quarterbacks some valuable experience. They know that Shiltz can step in, just like they know that rookie Taylor Powell has seen a lot in the games he started for them this season. By default, it’s been a QB-by-committee situation this year in Hamilton; Steinauer and offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich seem ready to bring that mentality into the playoffs.
Two star ballhawks, two strong defences
It doesn’t take long when you scroll through the CFL’s interception leaders to find two Nationals that will be key to their team’s fortunes this week. Both Marc-Antoine Dequoy of the Alouettes and Stavros Katsantonis of the Tiger-Cats have five interceptions each. Dequoy, 29, built on a strong 2022 season to come back with a career year in 2023.
Katsantonis made the leap this year, his third in the CFL, from a special teamer with Hamilton in 2022 to a game-changing playmaker in Mark Washington’s defence. The 27-year-old UBC product got hot in the second half of the season, pulling in four of his five interceptions after Week 13, adding momentum to his team’s playoff push.
Two opportunistic defences will take the field on Saturday. The Als have allowed 21.8 points per game this season, which is second behind Winnipeg’s 20.9, while the Ticats are fifth at 25.6. The Als are second in opponents’ turnovers with 48 this year, with the Ticats right behind them at 43. Montreal had 22 interceptions this year, good for third in the league, while Hamilton was right behind them with 19.
Who are these teams?
While their focus is on the game in front of them this week, both teams have much to prove this season. The Tiger-Cats arrive in the post-season for the fifth consecutive year. Their path to this year’s playoffs might be the most challenging and unique of the previous five. Mitchell has spent most of the season injured, dealing with a groin issue then a fractured leg. Shiltz was in briefly for Mitchell before injury took him out, which opened the door for Powell to man the ship. Powell learned on the fly and played well enough to help the Ticats’ qualify for the playoffs. As mentioned above, the Ticats know they have some depth at the most important position on the field, but they haven’t had consistent play, both in personnel and in production, all season. Can they get that with their season on the line, against a team that they haven’t been able to beat this year? We’ll find out on Saturday.
The Als’ only stumble this year came in a four-game stretch that saw them face Winnipeg, BC and Toronto twice. After getting out to a 6-3 start, the Als dropped all four of those games, briefly dropping under .500 before getting their feet back under them to close out the schedule. The Als’ five-game win streak gave them their first 11-win season since 2012, but questions will remain around this team and its inability to pick up wins against the three teams that had the most success in the regular season. They’ll have to get past a resurgent Ticats team to have one final shot at Toronto in the Eastern Final to prove that they can break through the glass ceiling and establish themselves as true Grey Cup contenders.