By Thomas Becker
The 2019-20 regular season was by the far the best the UPEI Panthers have ever played. They compiled a team-best 20-7-1 record and spent the majority of the season as one of U SPORTS top ranked teams, going as high as third in the country.
It's an amazing feat that caught some by surprise, but within the locker room, they always knew they could be elite.
"Overall, we had a deeper roster which, if we played to our potential, could surprise a few," said Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson of his team's play during the season. "The returning players came in with a strong sense of team and clearly bought into the goals that were established early."
The confidence is real and it's earned. They expect to win each time they take the ice. But with that comes a target on their back. And the first team looking to take them down is the sixth-seeded Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues (8-18-2).
"We have a positive mindset going in and you can just feel the energy in the room and at practice this week," said star goaltender Camille Scherger. "Moncton has to come into our barn with our loud and rowdy fans, so we're really excited to get started."
The Panthers have some demons to slay in this series, as the hockey program has had its issues with Moncton and the first round in general. But team captain Rachel Colle isn't buying the so-called "curse."
"It doesn't really help us to worry about what our team has done in the past. We're a different team and we're ready to prove that throughout the playoffs," she said. "This group is extremely motivated and hungry for a long playoff run and a chance at at AUS title, and we're confident we can do that."
While the Aigles Bleues present a challenge, UPEI has, for the most part, taken care of business against them. In four games, the Panthers outscored their opponent by a combined score of 10-6 leading to a 3-1-0 record.
In the head-to-head matchup, six different players scored against Moncton, which is reflective of the balanced attack they thrived with all season long. Eight players scored at least five goals during the 2019-20 campaign, with Taylor Gillis leading the way with 12. Jolena Gillard led the team with 20 points, as seven players recorded at least 15 or more points.
"Having four balanced lines has been the key to our success this year. Each night different players step up and provide the offence, which makes it hard for teams to plan against," Colle said.
Defensively, the Panthers are one of the best in the league, allowing just 42 goals which tied the Saint Mary's Huskies for first overall. Two of the Panthers' top defenders, Sophie Vandale and Ally Clements, finished second with identical +21 ratings, trailing only St. FX's Lindsey Donovan, who was a +23.
Together, the defensive unit is smart, fast and physical and they don't give up many scoring chances. And on the backend, UPEI has one of the best goaltenders in the country in Scherger. The third-year netminder finished the year with seven shutouts and led the AUS with a 1.43 goals against average and a .945 save percentage.
"The key is having good communication with the defence, just helping them out when I can to make their jobs easier," Scherger said. "And in turn they block lots of shots and are great positionally, so it makes my job easier too."
The season has already been rich in exciting moments and milestones, but this team isn't satisfied. They want more, and they'll do everything in their power to bring a championship back home.
"We need to play our gritty style of hockey and wear teams down each night," Scherger said. "We truly believe we have the group to do this. We just need to feed off each other and continue to prove people wrong."
GAME 1 – UdeM @ UPEI (Thurs / Feb. 13 / 7PM)
GAME 2 – UPEI @ UdeM (Sun / Feb. 16 / 2PM)
*GAME 3 – UdeM @ UPEI (Tues / Feb. 18 / 7PM)