By Thomas Becker
Photo Janessa Hogan
No one said booking a ticket to the playoffs would be easy.
With only a handful of games remaining, the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus inched a little closer to the fifth-place Panthers with a 5-2 win Wednesday night.
Moncton (10-14-1) boasted a balanced attack against the Panthers (9-12-4) as five different players scored for the visiting team. Alex Saulnier led the way with a goal and two assists for a three-point night.
"We need that from our team to be successful, especially on the road," said Moncton head coach Serge Bourgeois, whose team trails UPEI by only one point in the standings.
After a hard-hitting first three minutes, Moncton quickly took control. Brock Beukeboom gambled trying to keep the puck in the attacking zone, but it didn't pay off for the Panthers. The miscue led to a Moncton 2-on-1 where Jean–François Plante finished the play, beating an outstretched Matt Mahalak for the 1-0 edge.
Just 1:22 later, Joël Blanchard – the league's top goal-scorer – added to his impressive season with his 27th tally. From the edge of the slot, he fired it past the Panthers keeper, doubling their lead 2-0.
An innocent looking shot from the blue line caught Mahalak by surprise in the final minutes of the first, as Samuel LeBlanc notched his second goal of the campaign while pushing the Aigles Bleus' lead to 3-0.
At the other end, Moncton's defence forced UPEI to shoot from distance, helping Brandon Thibeau's cause between the pipes. The goaltender made nine saves in the period and 27 total as he improved his record to 8-11.
The Panthers found themselves on a power play in the early moments of the second period and while they didn't score, the team played more aggressively in their own offensive zone.
The power play seemed to give UPEI new life, as they attacked with ferocity. Beni Berisha finally got the home team on the scoreboard, tipping home Nelson Armstrong's wobbler from the blue line, trimming the deficit to 3-1.
A Patrick Huard hooking penalty cost Moncton another goal less than a minute later, when Beau McCue recorded his seventh goal of the year.
"In the beginning of the year we would've folded there," said Bourgeois. "I thought we stayed calm and kept to our system and we played well the rest of the way."
After surrendering their second goal, momentum quickly shifted back Moncton's way as Saulnier went in alone for the unassisted score, giving them a 4-2 cushion.
On a power play shortly after, the road team delivered yet again. Steve Lebel did a great job screening Mahalak and redirected Pierre Durepos' shot, pushing the lead back up to three. Durepos finished with two assists on the night.
The Panthers had a chance to cut into the lead early in the third while on a power play, but Thibeau regained his first-period form and kept the comfortable lead intact.
UPEI continued to play hard and generate chances throughout the period, but the three-goal deficit was too much to overcome.
"We'll take the two points for sure," said Bourgeois. "It's a tough building to play in, but we're happy with the result."
The Panthers hit the road for the next three games beginning on Jan. 27, when they take on the UNB Varsity Reds. Puck drops at 7 p.m.