By Thomas Becker
February has been good for the UPEI Panthers. In fact, you can say it's been perfect for them. The women's hockey team is peaking at the right time and has gained some much-needed confidence, as they get set for the playoffs and a quarter-final date with the St. Thomas Tommies.
The Island squad ended the regular season with a perfect 3-0 record this month, while outscoring their opponents 11-4, including a 2-1 shootout win over their first round foe.
"That's what we've been striving for all year is to get a little bit of consistency in our play and get our confidence back," said head coach Bruce Donaldson. "It sets a standard of what we're trying to achieve moving forward, so it's nice going in with three consecutive wins."
Donaldson attributes the team's recent success to better special teams play. In the last three games, UPEI's power play unit scored three times and bumped their power play percentage to 18.3, which ranked third in the seven-team circuit. Meanwhile, their penalty kill unit hasn't allowed a goal in those games and scored shorthanded on two occasions.
"Our special teams stats have been much better, especially on the penalty kill side," Donaldson said. "Our goals against have dropped about a goal a game, so defensively we've tightened up."
It's been a sort of role reversal for UPEI. Last season, the fourth-seeded Panthers limped into a quarter-final matchup against Moncton (who they played close all season long) as the favourites, but got swept in two games. This year, the sixth-seeded Panthers come in as the underdogs riding a season-high three-game win streak looking to eliminate the Tommies, who they played competitively throughout the year.
"The entire year has been a polar opposite to last year," Donaldson said. "But I keep saying it's not how you start, it's how you finish. If you can grow with that in mind hopefully good things will come."
St. Thomas won the season series 3-1, but aside from an Oct. 29 lopsided 6-0 loss, UPEI has played them very tough. Two of the last three games between the two squads went into overtime, while the Tommies took the other 3-1.
"Over my entire five years, St. Thomas has been the one team I've let get into my head," said team captain Emma Martin. "But we've learned that we can't let them knock us around. We're just as strong, we're faster and we know can compete with them."
The Panthers (7-10-7) have shown all season long that they can contend with the best. And while their 1-7 overtime record is little to be desired, they've demonstrated in those games that they have what it takes to stand tall against the league's cream of the crop. The key now is finding that killer instinct when it matters most. And Martin believes they've found it.
"We have to focus on the little things and to be confident," Martin said. "That's something we lacked in the beginning of the year. But I think we turned that around."
St. Thomas (12-8-4) doesn't give up much and allowed just 59 goals during the campaign, so the Panthers have to be patient in their approach and capitalize on the opportunities when they come.
To counteract the Tommies' stifling defence, Donaldson has been tinkering with his lineup and may have found the winning formula, especially if their recent hot streak is any indication.
"We're starting to get good distribution from all our lines, which is important to have against their sound defence," he said.
While Donaldson will be leaning on a line that consists of Rachel Colle, who led the team with 16 points (12 goals and four assists) and rookie Leah Byrne (five goals and eight assists) to deliver a scoring punch, he believes his trio of sophomore forwards – Sydnee Baker, Maria Clinton and Faith Steeves (a combined 25 points) – could turn their seasons around in a big way and provide some heroics in the playoffs.
"They're all very talented and will still get their opportunities," Donaldson said. "They just need to stop putting so much pressure on the end result and just worry about the process of getting there. If they do that, they're going to get rewarded."
With a lot at stake now and in the near future, it's time for the Panthers to show what they're made of.
"We know we're going to be hosting the national championship and we feel it's time for us to put our best 60 minutes together."
Game 1: UPEI @ STU – Feb. 13, 7 p.m.
*Game 2: STU @ UPEI – Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): UPEI @ STU – Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
* home game
Playoff tickets will be available at the MacLauchlan Arena Box Office during the following dates:
Wednesday, Feb. 14 (2-6 p.m.)
Thursday, Feb. 15 (2-6 p.m.)
Friday, Feb. 16 (2-6 p.m.)
MacLauchlan Arena B ticket table will open at 6:30 p.m. Friday
Ticket prices are
Youth K-12 Admitted Free
UPEI Students Free upon presentation of Student ID
Ticket payments cash only