By Thomas Becker
The regular season didn't go quite as planned for the UPEI Panthers. Injuries, suspensions and the development of its young, but promising core resulted in inconsistent play and a 10-15-5 record, good for sixth in the AUS.
But that's behind them now. Instead of looking back, the Panthers are focused on the task at hand as they prepare for the third-seeded Saint Mary's Huskies (17-12-1) in the quarter-finals beginning Wednesday night in Halifax.
And while they're moving on a from the mixed bag that was the rigorous 30-game campaign, they haven't forgotten the bitter taste of how the season ended with big losses to the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus and the UNB Reds.
"We have to learn from our losses and focus on what it takes to succeed as a team. We're going to use it as motivation for the Huskies," said fourth-year defenceman Owen Headrick, who led all blue liners with 13 goals.
The Panthers have reason to feel confident against their Halifax opponent. In five head-to-head contests, UPEI owns a 2-1-2 record with their lone regulation loss coming early in the season.
"We know what our job is going in and we know it's a short series, so there isn't much room for error," said rookie forward Kyle Maksimovich. "We did fairly well against them this year and we feel like it will be a good matchup for us."
Averaging close to 3.3 goals per game, scoring isn't much of a concern for the Panthers, as they matchup well against most teams. Third-year forward Kameron Kielly finished top-3 in scoring for the third straight year with 17 goals and 25 assists, while Filip Rydstrom recorded 14 goals and 10 assists despite appearing in just 20 games.
Maksimovich was second amongst rookies (sixth overall) in offensive production with his 14 goals and 25 assists, trailing only Saint Mary's freshman, Mitchell Balmas, who finished second in scoring with 43 points.
UPEI may have caught a break, as Balmas and his 11 points against them could miss the entire round due to injury. However, they'll still have to contend with dynamic forwards Anthony Repaci and Stephen Johnson, who combined for 16 points in the five games.
Both teams are physical in their approach to the game, especially on that end of the ice, which figures to play into the Panthers' strength.
"They're a hard-hitting team that doesn't give up much room in the offensive zone. But with our physicality and intensity, we have to opportunity to make some room and create scoring chances," Maksimovich said.
While putting the puck in the back of the net is critical, it's on the defensive end where the series could be won or lost. It's no secret that the Panthers struggled in their own zone, where they allowed 139 goals — second only to Dalhousie. It'll take a complete team effort and buy-in from each player to turn their fortunes around.
"Top to bottom, everyone needs to be ready. We need to play Panther hockey for 60 minutes," Headrick said. "The staff has done a great job preparing us this week and we're excited to get started."
As the last line of defence, head coach Forbes MacPherson has the luxury of using either Simon Hofley, who played the entire season between the pipes, or Matthew Mancina, the projected No. 1 goaltender who returns to the ice after missing all but one game. Whoever he chooses, the defence in front of him needs to step up if they want to pull off the upset.
"We're committed to getting better and improving each time we're on the ice," Headrick said. "We expect a lot from each other, and we believe in each other.
After Wednesday night fans will get a clearer picture of how much fight this team has in them, setting the stage for a thrilling Game 2 back home in Charlottetown.
"If we're solid in front of our home crowd and show as much intensity as we've shown against them in the regular season, then we'll put ourselves in a good position to succeed," Maksimovich said.
GAME 1 – UPEI @ SMU (Wed / Feb. 12 / 7PM)
GAME 2 – SMU @ UPEI (Fri / Feb. 14 / 7PM)
*GAME 3 – UPEI @ SMU (Sun / Feb. 16 / 7PM)