Big skates to fill

Mitch MacDonald
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UPEI Panthers, who have three players win Atlantic University Sport men’s hockey awards, will be restocking talent for another run at the conference championship

Jared Gomes of the UPEI Panthers chases down Bretton Stamler of the UNB Varsity Reds during Game 3 of their Atlantic University Sport men’s hockey semifinal series at MacLauchlan Arena recently.

There’s no doubt next year’s UPEI men’s hockey Panthers roster will have some big skates to fill.

A week after the Panthers went down fighting in a 3-2 overtime loss to the UNB Varsity Reds, forwards Jared Gomes and Matt Carter were named to the Atlantic University Sport men’s hockey first and second all-star teams, respectively, while Chris DeSousa was named to the all-rookie team.

Gomes, who is graduating from UPEI this spring, said that while he’s still feeling the effects of not being in the playoffs, being named to the  all-star team is much appreciated.

“It is certainly rewarding, it’s a nice pat on the back,”  Gomes told The Guardian. “Especially too, seeing some of the other guys on the team getting recognized as well.”

There’s no doubt a close chemistry in this year’s roster played at least  a small part in UPEI’s success, as the team finished the regular season with an 18-10-0  record over the 2010-2011 team’s 14-11-3 totals.

“We had a very strong season,” said Gomes. “It was a special team,just a special group of guys.”

Team captain Dylan Quaile had expressed the same sentiment during an interview only minutes after the fateful three game loss against UNB.

“We don’t even call ourselves a team, we’re a family and we stuck together all year,” said Quaile. “It’s disappointing to go out in the semifinals, but we’re proud of everybody and what we’ve accomplished this year.”

While the team saw itself swept out of the best-of-five series, it was also the first semifinal run the Panthers had seen since the1995-1996 season when now head coach Forbes MacPherson played for the team.

Since 1996, the team had suffered 15 years of playoff frustration until this year.

This season entered new territory for the team, with UPEI seeing crowds of more than 1,000 through the regular season and unheard of sellout crowds during the few playoff games at MacLauchlan Arena.

Many of those Panthers fans have been left with the pondering thought of how far UPEI may have gone if the team hadn’t met the top-ranked UNB in the second round.

The Varsity Reds have been a dominating team throughout the entire country in recent years, sitting at the top of the CIS top 10 list for nearly every week during the regular season. 

The team is also defending the CIS title this year, having also won national championships in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009.

The Varsity Reds also finished the regular season at the top of the AUS standings with a 20-5-3 record.

While the Panthers were responsible for three of UNB’s losses this year, the team couldn’t translate that success into the playoffs.

The games were close, with two one-goal decisions and a rowdy 5-1 bout, but ultimately the Panthers fell short.

That will be where next year’s roster will look to pick up the pieces, although that will be easier said than done with some key players on the team graduating this spring.

Apart from Gomes, other graduates include forward Brandon Biggers, fifth-year forward Devin Praught, forward Chad Locke, goalie Jhase Sniderman and forward Jordan Knox.

While a couple of those names could possibly return to the team, any player’s departure leaves a big gap for UPEI to fill for next season.

“They (the graduating players) are leaving the program in a better state than when they landed here,” said MacPherson. “It’s not going to be easy.”

While recruitment is a year-long commitment, the task cranks up during the off-season.

First and foremost is finding another goalie.

Reports have former Panther goalie Wayne Savage returning to UPEI.

A native of St. Thomas, Ont., Savage was the Panthers’ starting netminder in the 2009-2010 season, finishing the year with a .904 save percentage.

While his return hasn’t been confirmed, it would be a welcome addition to the team, said MacPherson.

“I’ve had some initial discussions with Wayne. He’s definitely interested and we’re interested in him,” said MacPherson. “Obviously, we’re more than comfortable adding Wayne Savage but nothing has been confirmed.”

Regardless of what other spaces MacPherson will be looking to fill, this year’s success could be a testament to the team’s strong recruiting since the new coach came on board.

DeSousa finished his first year with 31 points, 13 goals and 18 assists, to tie with Gomes for second on the team. 

Another strong pick up from last year was rookie netminder Mavric Parks, who’s shining moment came when he made approximately 50 saves in UPEI’s Game 3 overtime win against Acadia to clinch the playoff series.

As of now, it appears both DeSousa and Parks will be returning to UPEI, as well as a number of the team’s other rising players.

After all, they’ll be providing the remaining chemistry that’s leftover from the 2011-2012 season.

“It (this season) has been a stepping stone for what this team has to offer in years to come,” Quaile added. “Forbes is running a really good program here and we’re looking forward to next year.”

Organizations: Panthers, Atlantic University Sport, The Guardian

Geographic location: St. Thomas, Acadia

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