By Thomas Becker
The UNB Reds may have had UPEI's number this season, but the Panthers have something they don't – playoff experience.
Heading into their quarter-final matchup, the Panthers (14-13-1) are looking to take advantage of a youthful Reds (13-11-4) team that rejoined the league after an 11-year hiatus.
And after back-to-back heartbreaking quarter-final exits, they're hungrier than ever and ready to advance and compete for an AUS crown.
"Playoffs bring a whole new intensity to the game and we're very excited to get started," said team captain Emma Weatherbie. "We've been playing good hockey against good teams lately, and if we keep building off those games then we can make a run this postseason."
Despite dropping three of four games at the hands of the Reds, the Panthers are still a confident bunch. In the final three games leading up to the playoffs, they earned a pair of shutout wins against teams ahead of them in the standings, including a 3-0 win over UNB.
"We felt we played well against UNB at times, but we weren't winning, so getting that final game was great mentally for the team," said Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson.
All four games between these two teams have been close, hard-fought contests with the Reds carrying a narrow 8-5 scoring advantage. So it's safe to say the Island squad needs to find their offensive identity when the puck drops Thursday night in Fredericton.
"We're expecting a low scoring affair with a few good opportunities on both sides," Donaldson said. "The team that takes advantage of those situations will win."
There's no doubt the Reds are game-planning for UPEI's star forward, Rachel Colle, who led the team with 20 points (10G, 10A). So it's imperative that the supporting cast come in prepared and looking for their chances. The team's next top goal scorers are all rookies – Jolena Gillard (eight goals), Kelly Clements (five goals) and Taylor Gillis (five goals) – and with the playoffs presenting an unfamiliar challenge, Donaldson may be looking at some of his third-year forwards to step up their game and deliver on the league's biggest stage.
The Reds, meanwhile, rely on a balanced attack and can strike with any line. The rookie quartet of Jennifer Bell (7G, 7A), Lillian George (7G, 5A), Tamina Kelher (6G, 10A) and Ashley Stratton (6G, 9A) have led the team to a surprising fourth-place finish and their youthful energy could present problems.
"UNB plays a very disciplined game. They're well coached and have great balance throughout their lineupso we need to manage them well."
That said, the Panthers might have the most important player in the series in goaltender, Camille Scherger. The sophomore is the only netminder to start every game this season and sports an impressive .932 save percentage with a league-leading 712 saves.
"Schuggs has been the backbone of our team this year. Every game she's made key saves and given us a chance to win," Weatherbie said. "All I can say is I wouldn't want to be the team trying to put the puck behind her come playoff time."
There's no question, it's an exciting time to be a Panthers fan. And like you, they're hoping this is the year for an extended playoff run and if they stick to the process and trust each other, then they have every chance to do so.
"Our compete level has to be there at all times," Donaldson said. "We need to use our speed and get solid effort from everyone in the lineup."
GAME 1: Thurs, Feb. 14 – at UNB 7 p.m.
GAME 2: Sun, Feb. 17 – at UPEI 2 p.m.
GAME 3: Tues, Feb. 19 – at UNB 7 p.m.