CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – The Saint Mary’s Huskies finished 15 points ahead of the UPEI Panthers and swept the season series.
So, on paper, the Panthers are the presumed underdogs as the teams get ready to play Game 1 of their first-round Atlantic University Sport (AUS) men’s hockey quarter-final tonight in Halifax. Game time is 7 p.m. at the Halifax Forum.
But the game won’t be played on paper, the action will be on the ice, and UPEI isn’t conceding anything, regardless of what others might think.
“We know we have the players to (win), so we don't really care about what anyone says or what anyone thinks,” second-year Panthers forward Cody Payne said Tuesday. “All that matters is what the guys in our room say and think. We’re a confident group and we think we can get the job done.”
The first round is a best-of-three affair that is played in five days. One win and the series can swing drastically.
“You go in there and win one game and the ice sort of tilts your way when you come back home,” veteran forward Darcy Ashley said before Tuesday’s practice. “We have one job to do tomorrow and that’s to go there and win a hockey game.”
Head coach Forbes MacPherson realizes the matchup favours the Huskies based on the regular season, but he knows his team has played its best hockey during the past few weeks.
“This is a group that is excited that it’s playoff time and certainly eager to take on the challenge,” he said.
The Panthers lost in last year’s quarter-final to Saint Mary’s in a Game 3 that was decided with 32 seconds left.
“You learn that things happen fast and you can’t take anything for granted,” Payne said. “Now, a lot of our players are aware of the three-game series and how quick things happen, so we’re just going to (play) every shift as hard as we can.”
The Panthers were rolling heading into their last game at Saint Mary’s on Feb. 3. They were thumped 9-1 but didn't let it derail the good work that had previously been done. They responded by knocking off a hot Dalhousie squad and U Sports third-ranked St. FX X-Men to finish the regular season.
“I thought that was another critical point of our season,” MacPherson said.
The team has spent a lot of time preparing for the Huskies. The bench boss said his players are enjoying watching video and looking for tendencies on the opposition, but he added the last part of Tuesday’s practice would be less structured.
“At some point, you have to shut your mind off and go play a game of hockey,” he said.
Centre Brent Andrews and defenceman Alex McQuaid practised Tuesday with the Panthers, but they were still considered question marks to play in the opener, as they continue to return from injuries.
After a year in which the squad has been beset by a slew of injuries, ailments and suspensions, MacPherson said they are as healthy as they have been all season.
Matt Mahalak will get the start in the Panthers crease.
“It’s some of the older guys’ last kick at the can here, so we’re going to try and go out with a bang,” said Ashley, a fourth-year forward from Brooklyn, Prince County, P.E.I., who noted he hasn’t determined what he’s doing after this season. “Right now, I’m just focused on playing hockey.”
Need to know
A look at the UPEI, Saint Mary’s first-round men’s hockey playoff series.
Record – 18-10-2, fourth in the conference.
Goals for – 118.
Goals against – 86.
Top scorers – Hunter Garlent (10-31-41), Jake Coughler (13-21-34), Anthony Repaci (19-10-29), Calder Brooks (8-19-27) and Aaron Berisha (10-15-25).
Top goalie – Eric Brassard, 9-8 record, 2.71 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage.
Record – 11-18-1, fifth in the conference.
Goals for – 101.
Goals against – 136.
Top scorers – Kameron Kielly (13-29-42), Ryan MacKinnon (5-24-29), Marcus Power (17-12-29), Darcy Ashley (10-13-23), Gabe Guertler (10-12-22), Beau McCue (9-13-22) and Cody Payne (12-10-22).
Top goalie – Matt Mahalak, 6-9 record, 3.91 goals-against average and .862 save percentage.
Head to head
A look at the games this season between the Saint Mary’s Huskies and UPEI Panthers.
Saint Mary’s 7 UPEI 2 (in Bridgewater, N.S.)
UPEI 0 at Saint Mary’s 6
Saint Mary’s 4 at UPEI 3 OTL
UPEI 4 at Saint Mary’s 5
Saint Mary’s 5 at UPEI 2
UPEI 1 at Saint Mary’s 9
Last year’s first-round playoff series:
Saint Mary’s 5 UPEI 1
UPEI 7 Saint Mary’s 2
Saint Mary’s 4 UPEI 3
Panthers forward Cody Payne: “We’ve gotten better and better and it seems like we’re going full speed into playoffs, so it’s perfect timing.”
Head coach Forbes MacPherson: “Whether we win or lose, this series is over in five days . . . We have to understand there’s urgency.