MONTREAL — Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here.
The Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats haven’t been able to escape the fate of playing each other in the Eastern Semi-Final for the past three years. Adding to the story is the fact that they split the first two with Hamilton getting the last laugh at home in 2021 and the Alouettes answering with a triumph of their own in Montreal in 2022.
The movie script continues on Saturday when these two teams meet up at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. Familiar faces on both sidelines – as well as new characters – battle to be the hero of their own stories. Who will continue their journey against the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final?
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The season series hasn’t been favourable to Hamilton thus far as they’re looking for their first win over Montreal in the biggest game yet.
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer will be turning to a combination of Matthew Shiltz and Bo Levi Mitchell to lead the offence under centre, with the former listed as the starter, after the pair combined for 2,587 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season despite both missing time with injuries.
It’s the time of year when stars need to be stars and unexpected heroes step up. That’s exactly what Steinauer is hoping for with his receiving unit. Look no further than Tim White when analyzing the Ticats top target as he led all receivers with 1,269 and pulled down eight touchdowns.
His support comes in the form of Terry Godwin, Kiondre Smith and Omar Bayless.
No good plot comes without intriguing matchups. With Shiltz having thrown five interceptions and Mitchell with 10, the likes of Marc-Antoine Dequoy, Kabion Ento, Ciante Evans and Wesley Sutton have the opportunity to be difference makers. The unit finished the season allowing 239.1 yards per game through the air, the second best total in the CFL.
To avoid that talented secondary the Ticats might want to give running back James Butler plenty of carries as he will be going head-to-head with an Alouettes front that’s surrendered 109.9 yards a game. Coming off his second consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season, the success of Butler could determine the overall impact of the offence.
Number might be deceiving, though. Als general manager Danny Maciocia has rebuilt his defensive front throughout the season with Mustafa Johnson, Shawn Lemon and Almond Sewell on the line and Darnell Sankey and Reggie Stubblefield at linebacker. That’s the wall that Butler will be looking to be run through like a super hero.
Offensively for Montreal, Cody Fajardo is ready to write another chapter in his Alouettes story. One he hopes has a happy ending.
“I couldn’t be anymore happy or blessed to be a part of this organization and given a second chance,” Fajardo told montrealalouettes.com.
“It’s not very often you get a second chance, especially in professional sports. That’s why I want to do everything I can to bring home a cup to our amazing fan base, to these players, to the coaches and essentially that’s the goal.”
Much like his opponent, he’s targeted one receiver more than any other with Austin Mack finishing 115 yards behind White in receiving yards.
Keeping tabs on the deep receiving corps falls on defensive backs Kenneth George Jr., Stavros Katsantonis and Richard Leonard. The three have 10 interceptions and helped lead the Ticats secondary to an average of 264.0 yards against.
In the run game, William Stanback played in 14 games and finished with 800 yards. A healthy Stanback is always cause for concern for opposing fronts and with the Ticats ranking in the bottom half of the league in rushing yards allowed, they’ll need to keep on eye on him.
Knowing the impact he can make, Steinauer expects the Als to try and get Stanback going at some point.
“I think at the end of the day, they’ll probably going to want to establish him whether it’s early or somewhere in the game,” Steinauer told reporters.
“He’s definitely a guy you’re going to have to wrap him up. He’s tough to bring down. He runs behind his pads, falls forward, we understand that. We’ll have our hands full but I like our plan, I like where we’re at with the direction we’re headed but ultimately there’s the test on game day.”
Hamilton’s front is anchored by Ja’Gared Davis and Ted Laurent on the line and Simoni Lawrence and Jameer Thurman at linebacker. Lawrence, who has five sacks, and Thurman, who has 98 tackles, have been two of the best at their positions.
Montreal is searching for their second straight appearance in the Eastern Final after downing Hamilton 28-17 in last year’s Eastern Semi-Final.
Hamilton is travelling a playoff road they hope leads to a Grey Cup on their home field.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET from Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. Canadians can catch the action on TSN/RDS. U.S. and International viewers can watch on CFL+.
— With files from MontrealAlouettes.com and Ticats.ca