By Thomas Becker
If last year proved anything it's that the UPEI Panthers can compete at a high level on the national stage.
They may have come away empty handed in both those games, but if they bring the same energy and passion they did in March, there's no telling how far they'll go in their quest for an AUS title.
And after a successful 5-1 preseason, there's reason to be excited about this team, who's expected to break free from their first round slump.
Since the league changed their playoff format to a more traditional series-based postseason in 2012-13, the Panthers have never reached the semifinals, something they're hoping to change.
"We'd be very disappointed if we didn't get past the first round," said Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson.
To get there, UPEI will lean heavily on their strong defence. Led by veterans Kristen MacIntyre, Caroline Daoust and third-year standout Sophie Vandale, the blue line unit remains untouched with all eight players returning from last season in hopes of stifling the opposition once again.
Camille Scherger returns between the pipes after emerging as a star in her sophomore season in which she started every game and posted an impressive 1.84 goals against average with a .932 save percentage. To help his netminder, Donaldson brought in rookies Shaylin McFarlene and Sasha Weeks to spell Scherger on occasion.
"We're pretty much the same team as last season, so we've all grown and developed together," Scherger said. "Throughout training camp and preseason we've set the bar high as a group and we're expecting big things."
At full strength, the Panthers are incredibly difficult to score on, as they allowed just 35 goals (52 overall) in those situations. Only St. FX and St. Thomas were scored on fewer times with five players on the ice.
"We didn't give up many five-on-five goals," Donaldson said. "If we can replicate that this year, hopefully it'll equate to more wins."
What cost them was a lack of discipline. UPEI led the league with 275 penalty minutes and 17 power play goals against.
"We need to reduce our penalties per game from one to two," he said. "When you're playing in this conference and you're winning and losing by a goal, playing shorthanded more than other teams is not going to work for you."
This season, the coaching staff is hammering down on poor penalties that are retaliatory in nature and those that come in the offensive zone. And as a way to encourage his players to stay out of the sin bin, Donaldson is using ice time as leverage.
"We need to figure out how to work harder than them, especially in the offensive zone," he said. "You want to create the penalty, you don't want take the penalty."
Offensively, the Panthers look to newly named captain, Rachel Colle, to lead a young, but promising group. Colle said she's honoured to take up the mantle, but was quick to recognize the strong group of leaders on this team.
"We have a good group of veterans who lead by example for the younger women on our team and they're key to getting us off to a good start," Colle said. "This team is one of the most driven and hungry teams I've ever been apart of and we're excited to get started."
After scoring the third fewest goals (55) in 2018-19, the coaching staff brought in a trio of rookies, who could come in and make an immediate impact.
Tiah Scichilone is small in stature but what she lacks in size she makes up for in heart and drive. Mireille Martin has great IQ, sees the ice well and is a gifted passer. While Lexie Murphy is a power forward who brings size and skill to the frontline.
Along with these exciting rookies, Donaldson hopes to see growth from sophomores Jolena Gillard, Taylor Gillis and Kelly Clements, who combined for 18 goals and 20 assists.
"There's an opportunity where we could have four very well balanced but offensively gifted lines, which I couldn't say in the past," he said.
Through six preseason games, the Panthers scored 14 times with no player scoring more than two goals and Colle expects to see the same level of production when the games count for real.
"We've been focusing a lot on getting more pucks to the net and creating more quality scoring chances," Colle said. "If we carry that over into the season than we should be able to increase our offensive output."
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