By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers had one goal coming out of the Christmas break – to capture home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Mission accomplished.
The Panthers (15-12-3) went to work against the undermanned St. FX X-Men (15-12-3) and clinched fourth place after handing them a 4-1 loss Saturday night.
Seniors Sam Aulie and Brent Andrews each scored in their final regular season game as Panthers, while Doug Blaisdell and Gabe Guertler chipped in with a goal each. Kameron Kielly recorded a pair of assists for the second straight night.
"It feels amazing," Aulie said of clinching home ice advantage. "After the New Year, that was our goal and we achieved it."
UPEI will host the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus in the three-game series and if the crowd is anything like it was on Saturday, then Moncton has their hands full.
"Playing in front of a crowd like this is pretty amazing," Aulie said. "When fans come out, it gives you a sense of pride and makes you want to play harder."
UPEI looked to take advantage of the X-Men's thin lineup from the opening puck drop. They pushed the puck with pace and were aggressive in their attack. Fortunately for St. FX, Chase Marchand came to play. The third-year goaltender made 20 of his 48 saves in a scoreless first.
However, the home team would find the back of the net just 50 seconds into the second, when Blaisdell sailed a wrister from just inside the blue line that beat Marchand.
Off a Guertler faceoff win five minutes later, Kielly found Aulie in front of the net, where he jabbed the puck in for his third goal in the last two games.
"Playing with two great guys like Kam and Gabe helps a lot," Aulie said of his recent play. "Sticking to it and getting the dirty ones always helps too."
The X-Men would get that goal back at 13:55, as Holden Cook sent a far side pass to an open Daniel Robertson, who wired a shot past Simon Hofley from the right circle.
The Panthers got a much-needed insurance marker midway through the third period, when Kielly sent a short backhand pass to Guertler, who slid the puck past Marchand.
Andrews benefitted from a strange play moments later. After Beau McCue's shot ricocheted off the glass and fell off the net, an alert Andrews chipped it in for the 4-1 final.
The Panthers now get set for their quarter-final matchup against Moncton. The schedule and ticket information will be released in the coming days.
Aulie hinted at things to come and said their defensive play will be the determining factor in that series.
"They're a quick transition team and they like to strike on odd-man rushes, so if we're strong defensively, we'll be fine."
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan