Vancouver, BC – For the first time since 1971, The University of British Columbia men’s hockey team will host a playoff game beginning this Thursday. The Thunderbirds will take on the Manitoba Bisons in best-of-three Canada West quarter-final.
UBC finished the season 13-10-5, good for fourth place in the division, and Manitoba finished 15-13-0, one place behind. In the four times the ‘Birds and the Bisons met over the regular season, the Bisons took three games by a slim margin. UBC was sure to end their regular season series with a bang, however, winning the final game 8-6 and leaving Manitoba ready for a post-season rematch.
The entire conference has been off for the past three weeks with players taking part at the FISU Winter Universiade in Spain. After such a lengthy rest the Thunderbirds are ready to rise to the occasion.
“We have been doing what we’ve been doing all season long,” said UBC head coach Tyler Kuntz. “We have continued to practice fast with very good pace and the players have competed hard. We are a focused group that feels we have something to prove not just to the rest of the league but to ourselves.”
Third-year Thunderbird defenceman Neil Manning and Bisons second-year players Jordan DePape and Luke Paulsen all represented Canada at Winter Universiade games the past two weeks, earning a bronze medal, but will now be playing against one another for a spot in the semi-finals.
“Neil (Manning) deserves everything he gets in the game and it was great to see him represent his country in the FISU games,” said Kuntz. “He has been a real workhorse for us here, playing with different partners, playing against the oppositions top players, and playing both sides of the ice.”
The key to defeating the Bisons is executing a full 60 minutes with an entire team effort. Manitoba was able to capitalize on UBC’s defensive slips and offensive lulls in their regular season wins, but UBC’s final victory should be enough to showcase their ability to engage their essential point-producing firepower.
This season, Cole Wilson has been the most productive Thunderbird in matchups against the Bisons. His hat trick helped propel UBC in their final win, and his overall ability to find the back of the net had him finish seventh in the league in goals and first on the team with 13. Close behind him is Nick Buonassisi, with 11 goals and five assists. Anthony Bardaro tops the points chart however, with only five goals but a whopping 18 assists.
If the ‘Birds want to score on Deven Dubyk, they’ll have direct as many shots as possible his way. He finished the regular season with a record of 11-9-0, with a 0.919 save average, and 2.52 goals against average. He the four regular season games versus UBC he allowed just seven goals against and earned three wins.
“Scoring goals starts with shooting and creating traffic in front, so we will need to spray pepper at the net with bodies in the blue paint and force Manitoba to play in chaos mode,” said Kuntz.
DePape finished sixth in league scoring with 13 goals, 14 assists, and 27 points. Taylor Dickin was tops on the Bisons with 16 helpers. Out of the 14 goals Manitoba has netted against UBC, DePape, Darren Bestland, and Chad Robinson are responsible for three a piece. With offensive output like that, the Thunderbird defense will need to be at an absolute best.
UBC goaltenders Matt Hewitt and rookie Eric Williams have split the season playing in 15 games apiece. Hewitt is 6-5-3 with a 0.894 save percentage and 2.95 goals against average and Williams is 7-5-2 with a 0.922 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average. Both saw full games against Manitoba this season; Hewitt was in net for the first 2-1 loss, and Williams took the next two games, losing 3-1 both times. Williams relieved Hewitt of the offensive barrage that was the final game, earning the 8-6 victory. Coach Kuntz can rely on either netminder as long as the team in front of them plays cohesively.
A nagging problem for the Thunderbirds has been their special teams; in one loss to the Bisons, they went 0-for-6 on the man advantage. UBC has the weakest power play in the Canada West with 117 opportunities, and just 10 goals scored. The key to scoring on the man advantage will be creating traffic and finishing chances. It doesn’t have to be flashy; it has to be simple shots on goal.
The best-of-three series kicks off this Thursday at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre with a 7:00 pm puck drop. Game 2 will take place Friday at the same place and same time. If necessary, Game 3 will follow suit Saturday.