By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers find themselves in uncharted waters after taking down the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues in the quarter-finals.
Taylor Gillis' electrifying series clincher propelled the team to the semifinals for the first time ever, setting up a matchup with the second-seeded St. FX X-Women (22-5-1).
And while they're considered slight underdogs, their biggest weapon going in might just be their confidence.
"We're feeling excited and confident after the series win," said alternate captain Faith Steeves, who scored four goals in the opening round. "Our spirits are high right now and we have to bring that same attitude into the semifinals. The energy on the ice this week at practice has been great and you can tell that everyone's ready to go."
The Panthers (20-7-1) are well aware of what's coming their way. St. FX boasts both the league's MVP in Tyra Meropoulis and the league's top defensive player in Lydia Schurman. Not an easy matchup by any means, but the series may come down to how effective Meropoulis is and whether or not UPEI can stop her. The sophomore finished with an AUS-best 26 goals (12 more than the next closest player) and 11 assists.
Third-year defender Sophie Vandale will certainly see plenty of ice time opposite the MVP in an attempt to contain the scoring threat. St. FX scored more goals (14) than any other team against UPEI, so their defence has to be in top form.
"We've been working on some new drills to help limit their scoring opportunities. We know that if we're constantly in their face they won't get as many shots off," Vandale said.
The X-Women took the season series 3-1, which could've been a clean sweep if it wasn't for a blown 3-1 third period lead on Oct. 18. On the flip side, that game showed just how resilient and mentally tough this Panthers team is.
"I want to see our team bring the same drive to win that we've brought all season against the big teams," Steeves said. "Everyone on this team brings something unique to the program and when everyone comes together as a team, we've been successful."
Fatigue could also play a factor in this series, as the Panthers are going into St. FX on just three days rest, while the X-Women — winners of 12 straight — have had 13 days between games as a result of earning a bye in the regular season. While some may view that as a negative, Vandale sees the value gained from an emotional quarter-finals that saw them with their backs against the wall.
"We were able to get all the nerves out in the first round. And if we had a bye, we wouldn't have experienced that amazing feeling of moving on," she said.
There's no question, the competition just got a whole lot harder. But if we've learned anything from this team, it's that they don't back down from anything.
"To come away with a series win, everyone on the team needs to be on their game." Steeves said. "I know my teammates are fired up to be here and we're going to put up a huge fight."
GAME 1 – UPEI @ St. FX (Sat / Feb. 22 / 7PM)
GAME 2 – St. FX @ UPEI (Tues / Feb. 25 / 7PM)
*GAME 3 – UPEI @ St. FX (Thurs / Feb. 27 / 7PM)