By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers look to summon the same quarter-final magic that propelled them past Acadia last season. But this time they'll have to contend with the Saint Mary's Huskies if history is to repeat itself.
In a season filled with highs and lows – which included a seven-game losing streak and a three-game win streak – the fifth-seeded 11-15-4 Panthers are using that test of character to build a foundation heading into the postseason.
"We're hoping it's made our group resilient," said Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson. "It's toughened us up and in some ways we're hoping it made us a confident group because we know how well we've played at times."
The Panthers found themselves in a similar situation last season when they surprised the league with a two-game sweep of the Acadia Axemen. Marcus Power scored the series-clinching overtime goal to the delight of the MacLauchlan Arena crowd. Now, they're hoping to do the same.
"I think we're capable of another upset. We're obviously preparing and planning to go into this series to win." MacPherson said. "When we're playing well, we can be a very dangerous team to play against. Our challenge is making sure we remain consistent and play well over the course of the series so that we're not giving up any games."
Led by rookie Cody Payne's 14 goals, the Panthers will lean heavily on some of their new additions to carry them in the series. Payne, JC Campagna, Gabe Guertler and Beau McCue combined for 67 points (37 goals and 30 assists) in 30 games.
Captain Brent Andrews looks to continue to facilitate for his teammates, leading his team with 14 assists. While Power (nine goals, 11 assists) and Nelson Armstrong's presence on the blueline are expected to be voice of leadership for the young squad.
"We have 10 freshmen, so there's no avoiding their impact in the series," MacPherson said. "We're going to lean on the players that play a consistent and hard game."
The Huskies (15-14-1), meanwhile, counter with a pair of powerful rookies. Hunter Garlent is the odds on favourite to take home Rookie if the Year honours with an 18-goal, 27-assist campaign, while forward Bronson Beaton recorded 11 and 15. Veterans Anthony Repaci and Ben Duffy combined to score 46 points (22 goals and 24 assists), further demonstrating the depth of their squad.
"We have to do a good job in the neutral zone so that we're clogging it up and taking away their speed," the bench boss said. "We need to be aware of who's on the ice at all times and we have to compete for all 60 minutes."
No team has any glaring advantages, just two evenly matched teams fighting to inch closer to the elusive AUS title. The Huskies outscored the Panthers 97-85 in 2016-17, while UPEI surrendered 10 more goals than their opponent (108-98).
Head-to-head, they were just as competitive. Saint Mary's took the season series 3-2, including an overtime win on Jan. 14. In the five games they met, they outscored UPEI 18-16.
"We're two very evenly matched teams," MacPherson said. "The team that plays better over the course of five days will move on."
The Panthers are hoping Matt Mahalak can string together a series of consistent games in the crease. Mahalak finished 11-15 with a 3.09 goals against average and .886 save percentage, including three shutouts. But he also struggled at times and surrendered at least five goals in five different contests.
The Huskies will respond with freshman goaltended Eric Brassard, who finished with an 8-6 record with a 2.51 goals against average and .909 save percentage. Although he split time with fellow keeper Cole Cheveldave, Brassard did play in four of the five games against the Panthers and is expected to take his place between the pipes.
"Any team that wins at a high level has to be disciplined and has to have good goaltending," MacPherson said. "In this series in particular, you also need to have a couple breaks go your way."
Game 1 takes place Feb. 15 in Halifax. Puck drops at 7 p.m. You can catch your Panthers at MacLauchlan Arena on Friday, Feb. 17 for Game 2 of the quarter-finals.
Game 1: UPEI @ SMU – Feb. 15, 7 p.m.
Game 2: SMU @ UPEI – Feb. 17, 7 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): UPEI @ SMU – Feb. 19, 7 p.m.