UPEI Panthers rookie forward Mason Wilgosh is looking forward to a fresh start tonight when he steps onto the ice at MacLauchlan Arena.
The 21-year-old Winnipeg native returns to action in the team's final regulation game at home against the St. Thomas Tommies.
It will close the chapter on a controversial and lengthy 12-game suspension the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) assessed Wilgosh for a Nov. 30 hit on Acadia defenceman Christopher Owens in Wolfville, N.S.
The suspension, which accounted for almost half of the team’s 28-game season, was also upheld on appeal, and limited the former Western Hockey League junior to a role in team practices and watching games from the stands.
For Wilgosh, that’s all in the past now.
“It’s really hard to sit on the side and watch your teammates play. You just want to be out there with them and go to battle with them,” Wilgosh told The Guardian. “I’m still not too happy about it, but it is what it is . . . It’s already over with now. I’m looking for a fresh start.”
Although Wilgosh is a rookie, the Panthers’ coaching staff described him as a key player after earning 10 points (five goals, five assists) in the first half of the season.
While St. Thomas is already out of playoff contention, Wilgosh said tonight’s game won’t be taken lightly by UPEI.
A win against the Tommies, and a Saint Mary’s regulation win against St. F.X., would earn UPEI home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re getting ready to play hard,” said Wilgosh. “Hopefully, we’ll come out on top.”
The Panthers have been coming out on top of most games since Wilgosh’s suspension by playing a simple, physical strategy.
Coach Forbes MacPherson said the staff has been impressed with how the group adapted to losing Wilgosh.
“Obviously our record in the second half reflects that,” said MacPherson of the 8-2-1 run which has clinched UPEI a playoff position.
While the team was juggling lines through the first half, Wilgosh was partnered with fellow rookie Tyler Brown and fourth-year forward Mike MacIsaac at the time of the suspension.
“I think we’ll pick that back up where we left off and see how it works,” MacPherson said.
However, it’s unclear how much UPEI will have to tweak its lines tonight.
The team has already received two suspension letters from last weekend’s penalty-laden battle against UNB.
Assistant captain Harrison McIver is out for a game after being assessed a 10-minute, checking-from-behind misconduct penalty.
Rookie Cole MacMillan is out for two games, which will include the first game of playoffs, after being given a game misconduct.
It’s unclear if MacIsaac will play tonight after he was assessed a fighting major and game misconduct.
UNB forward Antoine Houde-Caron will likely face a similar suspension and was assessed the instigator penalty on the fight.
With Wilgosh back in the lineup, the Panthers may have a bit more flexibility in juggling line.
MacPherson described Wilgosh as a strong player in all situations — penalty kill, power play and even strength.
“He’s the full package,” said MacPherson. “Even though he’s a rookie, he shows very strong leadership skills.”
Other AUS games tonight will see Saint Mary’s hosting St. F.X., Acadia hosting Dalhousie and Moncton at UNB.