By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers' youth movement has earned them a spot back in the playoffs following their absence the season before.
The 14-9-1 Panthers finished fourth in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS), setting up a quarter-finals matchup with the 8-12-4 Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus.
"It's great we had the success that we had, especially because of how young we are, but we know there's still lots of work left," said Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson. "While it's great to make the playoffs, the true test will be how far we can go from here."
Rookie standouts Sydnee Baker, Maria Clinton and Faith Steeves gave Donaldson a much-needed scoring punch that was sorely lacking in last year's disappointing campaign. The freshmen trio combined to score 37 points (23 goals and 14 assists) in 24 games, leading the Panthers to a postseason berth.
"They all came in with very good offensive numbers," Donaldson said. "Their natural scoring ability has followed them here and we're really pleased about that."
Although he's hoping his prized rookies can continue their stellar play, Donaldson acknowledges that veteran defencmen Emma Martin and Bria Harding will be depended on to limit Moncton's own triple threat. Veterans Karine Roy, Katryne Villeneuve and Marie-Pier Corriveau led the Aigles Bleus in scoring this season with a combined 53 points (26 goals and 27 assists).
"They're very gifted players and they move the puck very well," Donaldson said of his competition. "To deal with them we need to take away their time and space. And we have to be able to match their intensity."
In her final AUS playoff run, the Panthers will lean heavily on senior goaltender Marie-Soleil Deschenes to stop Moncton's powerful attack. She put together an impressive season going 10-7 with a 1.82 goals against average and .939 save percentage. The Aigles Bleus will counter with Gabrielle Forget between the pipes. She finished 7-10 with a 2.20 goals against average and .928 save percentage.
If the season was any indication, this matchup will be another close battle. UPEI finished the season scoring 53 goals, while allowing 53 the other way. Moncton, meanwhile, put the puck in 54 times but surrendered 61.
Head-to-head, the Panthers took all four games, but three of them were won by only a single goal. The other was a 4-2 victory Jan. 15. In those games, UPEI outscored their opponent 9-4.
After Baker scored the overtime winner against Moncton on Oct. 29 the Panthers never looked back sweeping the season series.
"Emotionally it was a good game," Donaldson said. "It just gave us a sense of competitiveness against them."
Despite the success, Donaldson said specialty teams could determine the series' outcome. Moncton comes in with 20 power play goals, good for second in the league. While the Panthers surrendered a league-worst 23 power play goals and a 79.8 penalty kill percentage. Captain Kiana Strand's leadership and determined work ethic may be the key to righting that ship and turning those numbers around.
"I think it will come down to specialty teams and Kiana is a big part of that," he said. "Moncton has a very good power play, so we need to win that contest if we're to get by them."
While they're the only playoff team without a top-10 scorer, the Panthers have more than enough depth to beat up on Moncton's secondary lines. UPEI had a total of 11 players with at least seven points.
"If we can continue to get offence from all four lines than that will make us a tougher team to play against."
The Panthers Achilles' heel has been getting off to slow starts and Donaldson is hoping to see a mentally prepared team Thursday night.
"We need to be mentally ready from the opening puck drop, and we need to minimize the early mistakes we make," he said.
Game 1 takes place Feb. 16 at MacLauchlan Arena. Puck drops at 7 p.m.
Game 1: UdeM @ UPEI – Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
Game 2: UPEI @ UdeM – Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): UdeM @ UPEI – Feb. 20, 7 p.m.