A year after their 50th Canada West championship in their 100th season of play, the No.1 University of Alberta Golden Bears start the defence of their title with a best-of-three semi-final series against the UBC Thunderbirds.
The first game goes at 7 p.m. on Friday evening at Clare Drake Arena while puck drop on Saturday goes at 6 p.m., as does Sunday’s third game, if necessary. All games can also be seen live at canadawest.tv.
The Bears come into the weekend having not lost in regulation in 2014, going 11-0-1 since a loss to Manitoba on November 30, 2013.
Two of those games were on the road against UBC, Alberta sweeping the weekend series with 4-3 and 5-2 results. The two squads also met in Clare Drake earlier in the season, the Bears earning 5-3 and 6-2 decisions.
The T-birds are putting all of that behind them, however, especially with the success they had in the quarterfinals last weekend.
Grabbing the final playoff spot by the skin of their teeth, thanks to a win over Manitoba on the final weekend to push them just past the Regina Cougars in the standings, UBC squared off against the Saskatchewan Huskies and bested them 2-1 in the series in Saskatoon on the strength of special teams.
“Their goaltender played well for them,” commented Alberta head coach Ian Herbers, “and their power-play was very good, turning the tide for them in the games.”
The Huskies were actually ahead 3-1 in game three of the series before UBC scored three straight man-advantage markers to take a lead early in the second period that they wouldn’t give up, despite a concerted effort by the hometown Huskies who fired 61 shots on third-year netminder Steven Sanford, including 45 in the final two periods.
The Thunderbirds finished the weekend with 44% success on 16 power-play attempts and recorded a perfect penalty kill, not to mention a shorthanded tally.
“They’ve given us a tough time when we played them the four times over the year,” continued Herbers. “They played well, they worked hard, they’re well coached.”
Four different UBC players scored at point-per-game clips or higher against the Huskies, sophomore forward Brad Hoban leading the way with six points in the series, and a hat trick in the final game, while fourth-year Nate Fleming and third-year Geordie Wudrick netted three goals apiece.
“They’ve got some guys that are dangerous on that team. We’ll have to manage the puck well and manage the game well, making sure we’re playing our game and playing in their zone.”
Alberta will counter with enough weapons of their own, with five Bears in the scoring top ten at regular season’s end and third-year rearguard Jordan Rowley recording 30 points to tie for first among defenders.
Team captain Sean Ringrose, the WHL Graduate of the Month for January, finished the season on a 14-game point streak in which he put up 12 goals and 25 points, pushing his season total to a team-leading 36.
The Bears finished with the top-ranked power-play, firing at 32%, and the best penalty kill at 91%, crucial stats in what will likely be a special teams battle throughout this weekend’s contests.
Between the pipes, the goaltending duo of Kurtis Mucha and Luke Siemens will need to continue their stellar work, former CIS Goaltender of the Year Mucha grabbing the best goals against average of the season at 1.87, earning a .909 save percentage, three shutouts, and a 14-2 record.
Siemens, in his first season with the Bears, led Canada West with a .919 save percentage to go with a 1.98 GAA, one shutout, and an 11-1 record.
If the Bears are able to fly past the Birds, they would host the Canada West championship series next weekend. Regardless, the winner of this weekend will advance to the Final against either the Manitoa Bisons or Calgary Dinos, with the conference champion clinching the lone spot at the PotashCorp University Cup in Saskatoon, March 20-23.