By Thomas Becker
For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the UPEI Panthers will begin a playoff series at home.
Their opponent, the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus.
Despite a slow start following the Christmas break, the Panthers (15-12-3) rallied at the end of the season and captured four wins in their last five games to earn home ice advantage.
If Saturday's rocking atmosphere is foreshadowing things to come, then the Aigles Bleus (14-12-4) have their hands full.
"This is what we fought for," said Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson on starting a playoff series at home. "It certainly gets the guys fired up and the juices flowing."
The Panthers should feel confident heading into the postseason, especially considering their four-win improvement from a year ago, when they finished 11-18-1.
"The guys are feeling really good heading into playoffs," said team captain Brent Andrews. "We're coming off some good performances and we've been building our game to where we want it to be."
While it's great to go into a series with momentum, MacPherson doesn't put much weight in the fickle notion, especially this deep in the season. Instead, he's encouraging his team to find consistency in their energetic and gritty brand of hockey, and to stick with the process regardless of what the scoreboard reads at any given time.
"We're trying to make sure the guys are playing the right way all the time."
And they'll have to play the "right way" throughout the series if they're going to come out of the quarter-finals on top.
Both teams are strikingly similar when looking at the numbers. Head-to-head, UPEI finished 3-1-1 against their New Brunswick rival, while narrowly outscoring them 19-18.
The Panthers have the edge offensively and have more depth across the lines than Moncton. All-star candidate, Kameron Kielly (15G, 28A) has led the team in scoring since the start of the year and is joined by Cody Payne (13G, 15A), Filip Rydstrom (12G, 12A) and Gabe Guertler (11G, 16A), who each reached double figures in goals. Throw a healthy Beau McCue in the mix and suddenly you have a formidable offensive threat.
Moncton, while lacking the depth of their counterpart, still possesses the league's top goal-scorer in Maxime St-Cry, who tallied 23 goals. He's accompanied by teammates Robbie Graham and Vincent Deslauriers, who finished with 12 and 10 goals, respectively.
"We're going to have to be disciplined and play with a lot of energy," MacPherson said. "We have to shut down some of their key players and take advantage of our offensive opportunities."
That said, getting pucks in the back of the net won't come easy. Where the Aigles Bleus have the advantage is on the defensive end. Moncton has surrendered 103 goals compared to UPEI's 123 and a big reason why is goaltender Étienne Montpetit. The rookie may already be the best goalie in the AUS with his league-leading .923 save percentage over 25 starts.
The Panthers are well aware of the masked man at the other end of the ice, but the playoffs are a different animal and their electric offence may just be enough to rattle the inexperienced netminder.
"Moncton is a fast and skilled team with some great goaltending, so it will be key for us to play a full 60 minutes every game and manage the puck well," Andrews said.
Come Thursday all bets are off, but the Panthers are determined to make this series one to remember and will do everything in their power to light up MacLauchlan Arena with thunderous applause once again.
"We're built for playoff hockey," MacPherson said. "This group is hungry and ready to go."
Game 1: Thursday, Feb.14 – at UPEI 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, Feb. 16 – at UdeM 7 p.m.
Game 3: Monday, Feb. 18 – at UPEI 7 p.m.