For the second-straight season, the No.1 ranked University of Alberta Golden Bears begin their defence of the Canada West title against the UBC Thundebirds, hosting a best-of-three semi-final series.
Game one of the series gets underway at 7:00 p.m. at Clare Drake Arena on Friday, while game two on Saturday and, if necessary, game three on Sunday also start with puck drop at 7:00 p.m.
Last year, Alberta outscored the T-birds 11-3 in two games, en route to the team’s 51st conference title in 78 seasons.
In the regular season, the two squads have met four times, the Bears grabbing victories in both games at home but splitting the series in Vancouver at the start of the year, a 5-2 loss in the second game before Alberta began a 12-game winning streak.
The Bears also haven’t lost a Canada West matchup in regulation since November and, perhaps more importantly, haven’t lost a single playoff series to UBC in team history, going 6-0 against the Thunderbirds all-time and have yet to lose a single game since 1978.
But, this season’s UBC Thunderbirds are a very different program. The Birds, under the guidance of rookie head coach Tyler Kuntz, who patrolled the blueline for the Point Grey squad from 2001-2004, UBC finished fourth in the Canada West regular season standings and for the first time since 1972 hosted a conference playoff series. On rarified home playoff ice, they bested the Manitoba Bisons 2-1 in a best-of-three quarter-final series.
Leading the Thunderbirds to the series victory was former Camrose Kodiak Cole Wilson, netting three goals and six points in the series, and rookie Manraj Hayer, scoring two goals and five points.
Third-year rearguard Neil Manning recently returned to the team after playing for Team Canada at the 2015 Winter Universiade in Granada, Spain, traveling back across the ocean with a bronze medal alongside six Golden Bears whom he will now call enemy.
U of A forwards T.J. Foster, Jordan Hickmott, Levko Koper, and Kruise Reddick, as well as blueliners Jesse Craige and Jordan Rowley, were all in Granada as well, and helped Canada to its 14th medal at the biennial tournament, with a 6-2 win over the Czech Republic on February 14 in the Universiade bronze medal game.
Since then, the Alberta squad has yet to play an official game, though, except for a non-conference 4-2 loss to the NAIT Ooks, the Canada West regular season finishing back on Friday, January 30.
Nevertheless, the Golden Bears sport the best offence in Canada West, the only team scoring over 100 goals on the year, good for a 4.46 goal-per-game average, the second-best tally in the nation.
Former Edmonton Oil Kings Foster and Hickmott finished one-two in conference scoring, the former netting 42 points in only his second season with the Bears while Hickmott added 40 as a fourth-year veteran.
Former Red Deer Rebel Brett Ferguson (28 points) and ex-Spokane Chief Levko Koper (25 points) also finished in the top 10 while Craige, Rowley, and rearguard Thomas Carr bulked up the offence on the back end with at least four goals and 16 points apiece.
Adding more weapons to the arsenal, freshman Stephane Legault led all rookie scoring leaders with 21 points while Riley Kieser finished fourth with 15 points but led all first-years with three game-winners.
With the second-best defence in the nation, tied with Calgary for 1.99 goals per game, and just behind McGill’s 1.96 average, senior goaltender Kurtis Mucha and sophomore ‘keeper Luke Siemens have been doing their job between the pipes, recording respective GAA stats of 1.87 and 2.06, even though their save percentages (.917 and .899) have seen better days.
Rookie Eric Wiliams has been sharing the load with second-year Matt Hewitt in the UBC net, the freshman pulling an impressive .923 save percentage to rank third in Canada West during the regular season before playing all three games last weekend against Manitoba to improve to .938 alongside a 1.99 GAA.
All-time, Alberta has outscored UBC 71-33 in 15 playoff games, earning a 12-3 record. All games have been played at Clare Drake Arena.