© BRIAN MCINNIS/THE GUARDIAN
The UPEI men's hockey Panthers get one final practice in at MacLauchlan Arena in Charlottetown ahead of their much-anticipated matchup with the UNB Varsity Reds. The Atlantic University Sport semifinal series begins tonight in Fredericton. Game 2 is Friday night in Fredericton before the series moves to Charlottetown for Games 3 and 4, Monday and Tuesday.
UPEI-UNB matchup appears to be an underdog series as AUS playoffs begin semifinal round
Look close and you'll see there's a David versus Goliath motif to the UPEI Panthers-UNB Varsity Reds playoff series which starts today in Fredericton, N.B.
Game 1 in the best-of-five semifinal begins at 7 p.m. at the Aitken Centre.
UNB (23-3-2) was the top dog in the Atlantic University Sport men's hockey conference, winning the first overall spot in the standings by eight points over second place St. F.X. and earning one of two byes into the semis.
UPEI (11-14-3) is the sixth seed. It lost all four meetings versus the Reds this season, dropped its last four regular season games heading into the playoffs then faced third-seeded Acadia in the quarter-final round to open the playoffs.
But the plucky Panthers swept Acadia in two games, thumping the country's fifth-ranked team 6-3 in Game 1 then earned a hard-fought 4-3 overtime victory in Game 2.
So with one giant down, does UPEI have a rock in its sling this time with UNB's name on it?
Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson won't reveal any of his ammunition except to say let the games begin.
"That's the beauty of sport, nobody really knows. That's why you play the game. There's probably a significant group of people who follow AUS hockey that don't think we have a chance. We know their team very well, (most likely) they know our team very well. At the end of day, two teams have to play hockey,'' said MacPherson.
Hockey is something the Reds do well. Led by head coach Gardiner MacDougall, UNB has won 15 AUS crowns, including four of the previous five, earned five national university titles (the last in 2013) and finished second five times, including last year.
The Bedeque native's program is a magnet for quality players from across the country, including the occasional ex-American Hockey Leaguer.
"There's probably a significant group of people who follow AUS hockey that don't think we have a chance. We know their team very well, (most likely) they know our team very well. At the end of day, two teams have to play hockey.'' UPEI head coach Forbes MacPherson
UNB's roster is littered with former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League standouts, three being Morell's Stephen Anderson, Cam Critchlow, who has Summerside connections, and team leading scorer Philippe Maillet (31 points), who finished a four-year, 252-game QMJHL career with 92 goals and 240 points.
But UPEI's roster contains good players, too. Marcus Power (32 points) is one ahead of Maillet on the AUS scoring list and has three more goals (10). He also leads the playoffs in scoring with five points.
And goaltender Mavric Parks, hurt for about half of the season, recovered his form versus Acadia while fellow goalie Matt Mahalak held the fort solidly while Parks was ailing.
It means the series should be an interesting contrast in styles.
"They obviously have a high skill set. Their defencemen like to jump into the rush," said MacPherson. "We have a big strong physical D, good goaltending ... and blue collar forwards who give a good effort every night."
Ultimately, no one can be sure whether the Panthers behead another giant. MacPherson only knows his squad will in there slinging rocks.
"Obviously our guys are playing confident right now and playing (well). We really can't get caught up in who's wearing their jerseys over there. We'll put our best effort forth and see were the chips fall.''
Game 2 is Friday, at 7 p.m., in Fredericton. Game 3 is Monday, at 7 p.m., at MacLauchlan Arena in Charlottetown.
The other best-of-five semi between second seed St. F.X. and third seed Saint Mary's also begins tonight. Game 1 is 7 p.m. at St. F.X.