OAKVILLE, Ont. — They made their Toronto debut against the Edmonton Eskimos so it only figures Ricky Ray and Jason Barnes would play their first playoff game with the Argonauts against their former team.
Toronto (9-9) will host Edmonton (7-11) in the East Division semi-final Sunday at Rogers Centre. The Argos earned the right to host the contest by finishing second in the conference while Edmonton was third in the West but captured the crossover berth after posting a better record than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who both finished 6-12.
“The way the season has been kind of been coming down you knew that was a high probability of playing them,” Ray said following practice Sunday. “I don’t play better by playing with a chip on my shoulder so for me I’m preparing like it’s another game.
“Obviously I want to win but it’s the playoffs and I’ll face whoever comes here. You’re going to be playing some good teams to get to the Grey Cup.”
But the irony of the playoff matchup wasn’t lost upon Barnes.
“I don’t know who wrote that script,” he said with a chuckle. ”I’m just looking forward to the challenge.
“They got us twice this year and I’m definitely looking for some payback.”
Toronto made huge headlines last December after acquiring Ray from Edmonton for journeyman quarterback Stephen Jyles, Canadian kicker Grant Shaw and the second pick of the 2012 CFL Canadian college draft. The deal was a huge coup for the Argos, who acquired one of the league’s top pure passers and two-time Grey Cup champion over his nine seasons with the Eskimos.
Then in the off-season, Toronto signed Barnes as a free agent. The slotback spent three seasons in Edmonton and was twice released by the club, including after registering 50 catches for 869 yards in 2011 to pursue NFL opportunities. When he couldn’t land a deal south of the border Barnes joined the Argos and reunited with Ray.
Ray struggled early adjusting to head coach Scott Milanovich’s offence but still threw for 4,059 yards this season, the seventh time in his 10-year CFL career he has surpassed the 4,000-yard passing plateau. Ray’s 68.6% completion average was also a club record.
But Edmonton took advantage of Ray’s early struggles to sweep the season series with Toronto 2-0. The Eskimos opened the 2012 campaign with a 19-15 home win June 30 before downing the Argos 26-17 at Rogers Centre on Aug. 27.
Ray was a combined 52-of-77 passing against the Eskimos for 549 yards and two TDs but threw two interceptions in the second defeat. Barnes had six catches for 73 yards in the two games but only two for 14 yards in the second matchup.
Barnes’ first year in Toronto has been a struggle with just 31 catches for 437 yards and four TDs. But he did have a career-best three touchdown catches in a 44-32 home loss to Winnipeg on Oct. 19.
The August defeat seems to have been a watershed moment for the 33-year-old Ray, who has thrown just two interceptions since then although he did miss three starts with a knee injury. But in his two games since returning to the lineup, Ray has eight TD passes against just one interception and Toronto heads into the playoffs having won its final two regular-season contests.
Edmonton, by comparison, has lost three straight and eight of its last 10 games. On Saturday, the Eskimos also fired GM Eric Tillman, who has been under tremendous fire in Alberta for his role in the controversial Ray trade.
“Of course, I had a reaction but nothing I want to talk about. That’s their situation,” Ray said when asked about Tillman’s firing. “I’m here in Toronto now and this is the team I’m playing for.
“I don’t really care to comment or worry about what’s happening over there. As an athlete you just try and focus on what you have to do out there. I’m sure they’re going to be focused and ready to go and come in here and get a win from us and keep moving just like we’re trying to do the same.”
Barnes found the timing of the move odd.
“I saw it coming, I just thought it was weird timing right before the playoffs,” he said. “But the playoffs are more about the coaches and players than the front office and they’ll be focused and ready to play just like we will be.”
Milanovich isn’t putting much stock in what happened between the two teams this season, saying both start the playoffs with a clean slate. But he’s buoyed by the play of his quarterback and team down the stretch.
“Ricky is playing with a lot of confidence, the team is playing with a lot of confidence and I think that’s what they’re going to carry into this game,” Milanovich said. “He [Ray] hasn’t played poorly since then [second loss to Edmonton].
“Again it’s the process that goes in to learning a new system and new players and all those things. It has taken some time for us as it would naturally but he’s playing great now.”
And Milanovich doesn’t see the need this week to sit down with his veteran quarterback and talk about the dangers of seeking redemption against a former team.
“Ricky is so even keel,” he said. “I won’t talk to him about it, he doesn’t need it.
“He understands what’s at stake and what he has to do. He has been through all these things before so I don’t think it needs to be talked about.”
“It’s the playoffs, you have to play your best games in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s a challenge for us offensively to kind of keep the momentum we’ve created these last few weeks going.”