By Thomas Becker
If the regular season proved anything it’s that a quarterfinal matchup between the Acadia Axemen and UPEI Panthers will be a hard-fought battle.
Head-to-head, the third-seeded Axemen took three of four games from the sixth-seeded Panthers while outscoring them 13-10. But the contests were much closer than the numbers suggest.
Two of Acadia’s victories came in overtime, including a 2-1 shootout win on Feb. 5, while both teams split the remaining two games away from home.
“We prepare hard against every team and this year we played very well against Acadia, so hopefully that continues,” said Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson.
Both teams come into the series having lost more than they’ve won. In the last 10 games, UPEI is 2-8 – including a four-game losing streak – while Acadia is 4-6. However, Acadia carries the momentum of a season finale win last weekend against the fourth-ranked Saint Mary’s Huskies.
“We know we have a very tough opponent ahead of us,” said Axemen head coach Darren Burns. “I think the Panthers are very well-coached and play with a lot of passion. To me, those are some key ingredients for success.”
After a difficult second half to their season, where they failed to clinch a first round bye, the Axemen hope to rediscover their winning form when the puck hits the ice Wednesday night.
“If you’re playing well, a bye is a good thing. But we feel we have some aspects we’ve got to fine-tune in our game.”
Acadia’s balanced approach has them ranked near the top in both offensive and defensive categories – third in goals for (106) and second in goals against (75). But it’s strong defensive fundamentals that could carry them to a series win.
“We try to pride ourselves in playing good defensively, even if you have a team that is solid offensively,” said Burns. “The less time you spend in your own zone, the better it is.”
The Panthers, meanwhile, are hoping to find ways to get points on the scoreboard after netting a league low 20 goals in their last 10 games.
They’ll lean on Marcus Power (32 points) – the fifth highest scorer in the AUS – Brent Andrews (25 points) and captain Mason Wilgosh (20 points) to provide the scoring load.
“We’re going to play very simple hockey, get pucks to the net in traffic, get some rebounds and basically play blue-collar hockey,” said MacPherson.
But what the Panthers lack in scoring they make up for with defence and goaltending. Starting netminder Matt Mahalak ranks third with a .914 save percentage and presents a difficult matchup for Acadia.
Mahalak will be a key piece in the Panthers’ pursuit of an upset bid. However, Acadia has the luxury of a deep team filled with skilled two-way players, and is one of two teams with at least four top-15 scorers.
Leading the way for the Axemen are forwards Mike Cazzola (30 points), Brett Thompson (29 points), Boston Leier (25 points) and defenceman Matthew Pufahl (28 points).
“We have good, sound depth and this time of year it comes down to guys playing well defensively,” said Burns. “And that’s what we have to rely on heading into the playoffs.”
It won’t be easy, but whichever team comes out on top, they’ll have played a disciplined brand of hockey while staying composed under the bright lights of the postseason.
Game 1 begins tonight at 7 p.m. at Acadia.
Game 1: UPEI @ Acadia – Feb. 17, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Acadia @ UPEI – Feb. 19, 7 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): UPEI @ Acadia – Feb. 21, 7 p.m.