By Thomas Becker
Despite a quarter-final exit at the hands of the St. FX X-Men, the UPEI Panthers finished the 2016 season on a relatively positive note – reeling off three straight wins to sneak into the playoffs and get a taste of the postseason theatrics.
It's a feeling head coach Lewis Page and his squad hope to experience again in 2017. And if they carry over the play of the latter part of 2016 – where they won six of their last seven games – there's no telling how far they'll go.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs and hopefully we can challenge for an AUS title and national championship," Page said.
The bench boss was hard at work during the summer recruiting eight new players, five of whom – Ryan Boswell, Thomas Carter-Thompson, Dan Martell, Cameron Trainor and Donovan Wyand – played for Page as part of Team P.E.I. at the Canada Games in Winnipeg. They will provide depth to an already established team looking to take another step forward in their development.
Newcomers Neil Harte (Warman, Sask.) and Carlos Gallo, an exchange student from Lima Peru, are expected to come in and make an immediate impact and will have every opportunity to earn valuable minutes on the field. Viktor Guiterrez (Yellowknife, N.W.T.), meanwhile, will be sidelined with an ACL injury.
"We're excited about our new guys," Page said. "Neil, in particular, is a very good player. He'll score some goals for us."
That's good news for the Panthers, who struggled at times putting the ball in net – scoring just 13 goals in 12 contests. What's even better is, when they did score, they had a perfect 6-0 record. The bad news… they were shutout in the other six games, going 0-5-1.
Opposing teams will undoubtedly hone in on Mohammad Jaber after his breakout rookie campaign, where he scored a team-high five goals. After his third game as a Panther, Jaber solidified his position as a starting striker and struck fear in hearts of his opponents.
"I expect him to be a threat for sure. Mo is a big, strong player and he loves to get to the net and score goals," Page said of his speedy forward. "He's definitely among the best strikers in the league."
Page hopes he struck rookie gold again with the addition of Harte, who'll play a prominent role on the offensive end and provide support for Jaber. Joining the two will be Sam Smiley, a former fullback turned forward, who'll share the offensive load and take pressure off of Jaber and Harte, allowing them to have more space and time to operate.
"Our goal is to improve our scoring. It's one of the things we looked for when we were recruiting."
The midfield will be in the safe hands of Ignacio Sanchez and Lucas Ross, both entering their third year of eligibility. The crop of midfielders is relatively young, filled with first and second-year players, but Page is confident they'll effectively bridge the gap from defence to offence.
"With another year under their belt, they'll have a much better idea of what it takes to do well in this league."
While the departures of Blake Kelly, Kieran Moore, Harminder Singh and all-star defenceman Mark Ashlee (2016 Panther Athlete of the Year) will certainly be felt, Page has faith that his younger players can assume the roles left behind.
"Anytime you lose quality players it has an impact on the team," Page said. "Those guys were great leaders, but the program has done well in preparing our younger players."
Ashlee's leadership and presence will especially be missed as he anchored one of the league's top defensive units that allowed just nine goals in 12 games.
"Mark was definitely a great defender and a calming presence in the backline. He didn't get rattled very often and we'll miss that during key moments of games."
It didn't take long for Page to fill a role that every great team needs – a leader who prepares his team for battle. So when Jeff Moore announced he'd return for his fifth and final season, Page was the first to welcome the quiet, lead-by-example fullback.
"Jeff is very important to this team," Page said. "He's going to be a big help for us on and off the field."
With Moore in the fold and another year of experience for third-year defencemen Mark Smith, Jake Deighan, Jesse Cameron, and keeper Brett Strba manning the goal, the Panthers look strong again in the backline and will look to shut down the enemy.
Rivals Cape Breton and Acadia – U Sports fifth and eighth ranked teams, respectively – return as league favourites, while UNB, St. FX and Dalhousie aren't far behind. The only question remaining is can the Panthers take the next step forward and challenge them for that AUS title?
"The traditional powers are going to be good again, but if you don't come to play anyone can take points off you."
And for the Panthers, they hope they're the ones taking points from others.
Sept. 9 (5:15 p.m) vs St. F.X.
Sept. 16 (5:15 p.m.) vs Acadia
Sept. 23 (3:15 p.m.) vs Saint Mary's
Oct. 1 (3:15 p.m.) vs Cape Breton
Oct. 15 (3:15 p.m.) vs Dalhousie
Oct. 21 (3:15 p.m.) vs Memorial
For the full schedule click here