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Vancouver, BC – The No. 7 ranked University of British Columbia’s women’s hockey team will host the No. 9 ranked University of Manitoba Bisons in the Canada West semi final best-of-three series beginning this Friday. The Thunderbirds finished the season at a program high of second place in the division with a record of 18-6-4. Manitoba finished third with a record of 19-7-2.
With their standings, UBC earned a coveted bye week while Manitoba grappled with the University of Regina Cougars, finally eliminating them from playoff contention in the third game of the series.
“It will be a pretty intense matchup,” UBC head coach Graham Thomas said about the upcoming series. “Manitoba is well coached. They’re always well prepared and ready to work hard; the playoffs won’t be any different. They’re a defence-first kind of team and they don’t give up.”
Key to winning the game will be consistency and a heavy offensive output; that’s how the T-Birds did it merely three weeks ago, when they swept the Bisons in their final weekend home series. In doing so, they were able to usurp second place from Manitoba in the Canada West, and clinch a playoff week bye. The two teams met four times this regular season, and each swept when hosting. Hopefully UBC’s luck will stay intact for the playoffs.
Now it’s time to see if their week off helped them prepare.
“We pushed them pretty hard,” Thomas said of the team’s time lay-off. “We used the extra time for some off-ice work outs, and some execution and skills drills—stuff we normally don’t have the time to spend really tightening up our game. So we took advantage of that and had some good rest. So, we should be ready to ramp up the intensity this weekend.”
The matchup will feature a star-studded line up, as both teams boast newly selected Canada West All-Star team members. Power scoring forwards Tatiana Rafter (14G, 15A) and Nicole Saxvik (11G, 10A) were named to the Canada West Second All-Star Team and defenceman Sarah Casorso (8G, 13A) was named to the First Team. For Rafter and Casorso this is their second consecutive year with conference honours.  
Joining Casorso on the Canada West First All-Star Team is Manitoba rookie forward phenom Alanna Sharman. Sharman leads the league in points with 40 (17G, 23A) and was also awarded the Canada West Rookie of the Year award for her inaugural season. In the four games she played against UBC, the Thunderbirds were able to keep in relatively in check as she finished with a goal and four assists.
Appointed alongside line mates Rafter and Saxvik on the Canada West Second Team is Rachel Dyck in net, and Michelle Pawluk on defence. Dyck ended the regular season with the second-best goals against, boasting a 1.70 average. She is also third in the league with a save percentage of .927, merely .005 less efficient than UBC’s Samantha Langford.
“Such accolades are earned and well deserved,” Thomas said of his three All-Stars. “But our entire team deserves recognition, and I think these players [Rafter, Saxvik, and Casorso] feel this way, too. I mean, two out of six forwards on the Second All-Star team is an amazing accomplishment and I’m really proud of them; but they know just as well as I do that at the end of the day everyone in our locker room is a team-first player, and that’s why we’re where we are right now. We have team-oriented goals like winning the championship that are of the most importance, and that we achieve as a team.”
A team effort will be necessary to move onto the finals this weekend. Thomas has offensive plans to break through Manitoba’s acclaimed defence.
“We have to do what we did against them last time, get lots of pucks on net, drive the net hard, keep lots of pressure on Dyck and really have our special teams step up to play.”
While Manitoba had the fourth best power play in the Canada West in the 2014-2015 regular season, they were even better in the opening round of the playoff last weekend against Regina. Out of 16 man-advantage opportunities in three games played, the Bisons capitalized six times for a 37.5 PP%.
“The coaching staff has done a tremendous job with them,” Thomas said, complimenting the Bisons. “They never give up. And what we learned last year, being eliminated from the playoffs early, was that we can’t take a shift off. We can’t take anything for granted; nothing will be given to us. And that was a tough lesson for us to learn, but our core group has grown from that experience and will help get us in the right mindset. We have to go out there and earn it, and the team gets that, they know.”
Puck drop for game 1 of the best-of-three semi final series is set for 7:00 pm at Father Bauer Arena. Game 2 will take place Saturday afternoon at 3:00pm in the same venue. Should a game 3 be necessary, puck drop will take place at the same place and time Sunday afternoon.