By Thomas Becker
A team meeting in December turned their season around. Now they're one of the hottest teams heading into the playoffs.
The UPEI Panthers have won six of their last eight games – beating the likes of UNB, St. FX, Acadia, Dalhousie and Moncton. The only team missing from that list is the Saint Mary's Huskies (18-10-2), who they drew in a quarter-final matchup beginning on Wednesday.
"We had to deal with a couple in-house concerns," said head coach Forbes MacPherson. "We needed to get guys believing and buying into a certain way we wanted to play."
With nine rookies on the roster (four on the defensive side), it's understandable why it took awhile to find their stride. The Panthers (11-18-1) tried to protect their inexperienced blue line and played on their heels rather than the aggressive style UPEI hockey is known for.
"We want to be aggressive. We're a big body team and when get our feet moving and we get pucks behind opposing team's D, we're a hard team to contain," MacPherson said. "We got away from that a little bit, but once we focused on playing more aggressive, we started to see better results.
"There were certain individuals whose games quietly improved. And with each game that we played hard, our confidence just seemed to grow."
It's no secret, the fifth-seeded Panthers are in tough against the fourth-seeded Huskies, who rank second in scoring (118 goals) and third in goals against (86). Head-to-head, Saint Mary's won all five games while outscoring UPEI 29-10.
"The matchup seems to favour them. We'll have to make some adjustments in this series and see where it takes us, but you have to give them credit, they're a good team."
Despite what the crooked numbers might suggest, the postseason represents a new beginning for the Panthers and they're embracing the road that awaits them.
"We're a confident group going in. We know who they are and we just need to have a better effort against them."
UPEI's recent success has given them a confident swagger that has been missing for most of the year. And they're not backing down from anyone.
"We're not going there trying to coach to every move they make," MacPherson said. "We have a plan in place and we're going to try to execute that plan no matter what they do."
The series will feature two of the league's elite young talents. Rookie sniper Kameron Kielly, finished second in scoring with 42 points (13 goals and 29 assists) for the Panthers, while the Huskies counter with reigning rookie of the year, Hunter Garlent, who finished third with 41 points (10 goals and 31 assists).
While Kielly may be the focal point on offence, UPEI's secret weapon may lie in the depth they've developed at the forward positions and the different combinations they can deploy.
"Everybody in the playoffs are a little more alert, engaged and aware. So when there's breakdowns, it's usually when the top guys aren't on the ice," MacPherson said. "And if your depth guys can capitalize on those opportunities then they can make a difference in a series."
The Panthers have their sights set on that elusive championship, now it's time to take it.
"That's what everybody plays for. This is what's it's all about. This is the event. You spend all year getting here and now it's time to perform."
Game 1: UPEI @ SMU – Feb. 14, 7 p.m.
*Game 2: SMU @ UPEI – Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): UPEI @ SMU – Feb. 18, 7 p.m.
* home game
Playoff tickets are available for purchase at the Eastlink Centre and MacLauchlan Arena Box Offices.
Season Ticket Holder's Holding Seats are available for purchase at either location, and will be held until 12:00 pm Noon on Fridaybefore being released to the General Public for sale.
Eastlnk Centre Box Office Hours are:
Tuesday, Feb. 13 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Wednesday, February 14 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Thursday, February 15 (11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.)
Friday, February 16 (11 a.m.-8 p.m.)
Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Debit and Cash accepted. Tickets are also available during Box Office hours by phone: 902-629-6625. Game tickets are also available online through the Eastlink Centre here: http://bit.ly/2Ezk5tf
MacLauchlan Arena Box Office Hours are:
Wednesday, Feb. 14 (2-6 p.m.)
Thursday, Feb. 15 (2-6 p.m.)
Friday, Feb. 16 (2 p.m.-Game Time)
- Playoff Tickets are $15