By Thomas Becker
As the 2016 portion of the season gets set to begin, teams including the UPEI Men's Hockey Panthers will be jockeying for playoff positioning as the final set of games draw close.
For the fourth place Panthers (8-6-1), they'll have to do it without one of their offensive weapons, forward Darcy Ashley, who's accounted for 14 points in 11 games and is out for the remainder of the season with an upper body injury.
"You can't replace Darcy Ashley, he's a top player in this league and he's the top player on our team," said Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson. "It really opens the door for someone else to step up, and there will be opportunity provided for a number of guys to see who can earn those minutes."
On Friday night, UPEI plays host to the second place St. Francis Xavier X-Men (11-2-2), who boast a powerful scoring duo in Eric Locke (23 points) and Kristoff Kontos (16 points), both ranked in the AUS top-10.
"The strength of their team obviously are those high-end guys, but they have a lot of depth and have a lot of firepower over there. There's a certain way we have to play the game and we'll be focusing on playing good, solid, hard hockey," MacPherson said.
The Panthers, responsible for both of the X-Men's regulation losses, will have to play a physical brand of hockey, full of energy and smart puck management if they want to make it three in a row against the X-Men. They'll be led by forwards Marcus Power (19 points) and Brent Andrews (15 points), who are expected to share the scoring role in Ashley's absence.
To complete the back-to-back weekend, the Panthers will face the seventh place Dalhousie Tigers (4-9-2) Saturday evening. The two teams have split the season series, with each grabbing a win.
Despite Dalhousie's place in the standings, MacPherson said goaltending could be the determining factor, especially if Tigers netminder Corbin Boes plays well. Playing with the same disciplined mindset they have for most of the season will be key for the Panthers.
"The mindset doesn't change at all. We have to prepare the same way every single night."
Puck drops Friday at 7 p.m. at MacLauchlan Arena against St. F.X., while Saturday's game against Dalhousie takes place at the Eastlink Centre at 7 p.m. in celebration of Hockey Day On P.E.I.
The Eastlink Centre will host several events during the daylong celebration including the Charlottetown PeeWee AA Abbies at 1 p.m. That game will be followed by Quebec Major Junior Hockey League action, when the Charlottetown Islanders host the Rimouski Oceanic at 3 p.m.