The third week of Canada West competition saw a highly anticipated series between the University of Alberta Pandas and the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. These two teams finished first and second at the end of the last regular season respectively, and this was their first meeting this season. The fortunes of these two teams are also travelling in opposite directions, as the Thunderbirds have won their last two games while the Pandas have lost theirs in extra time.
With the Pandas losing the first game against the Thunderbirds by a score of 2-0 on Friday, they came into the second game of the series on Saturday needing the points to stay competitive in the Canada West conference. The most striking aspect of a game between the Thunderbirds and the Pandas is the speed. End-to-end rushes are common, and the hockey sense and ability to force the play to the outside of both teams is incredible. Both teams have incredibly talented rosters with a great deal of depth.
While the Thunderbirds eventually emerged victorious, it took until double overtime for one team to gain a definite advantage. The Thunderbirds scored first on the power play at 14:22 of the first period. The goal was from Mairead Bast, with assists from Nicole Saxvik and Cassandra Vilgrain; the trio are the top scoring players for the Thunderbirds. The Pandas went into the first intermission unable to equalize, but a penalty against the Thunderbirds allowed the Pandas to get on the board at 13:16 of the second period. Autumn MacDougall scored her third goal of the season, with assists from Alex Poznikoff and Sasha Lutz.
A goal by Abby Benning, with assists from Morgan Kelly and Hannah Fouillard, gave the Pandas a short-lived lead – but the Thunderbirds quickly answered with their own goal from Cassandra Vilgrain, assisted by Nicole Saxvik and Celine Tardif. Despite several excellent chances at both ends of the ice, and some very aggressive penalty killing from both sides, the score remained tied at the end of regulation.
Both goalies – Dayna Owen for the Pandas, and Tory Micklash for the Thunderbirds – were in top form with highlight-reel-quality saves, some on the penalty kill and others during five-on-five play. Owen made an especially crucial save at the end of the first overtime period to force a second period of overtime. Unfortunately, the Thunderbirds ended the game just 11 seconds into double overtime with a goal from Logan Boyd assisted by Stephanie Schaupmeyer.
Goaltending had been a concern for the Thunderbirds before the season started as both their goaltenders are rookies, and sometimes an adjustment period occurs when goaltenders enter a new league at a new level of competition. This hasn’t appeared to be a problem for the Thunderbirds’ goaltenders, however, as they have posted two shutouts this season. Micklash also didn’t react to the considerable amount of time the Pandas forwards spent around the net, trying to find a weakness to exploit.
While the Pandas had the edge in speed throughout the game, often beating the Thunderbirds to the puck from further distances, the Thunderbirds were able to cycle the puck extremely well and set up many of the plays they would have practiced. The Pandas were able to do this as well, but the Thunderbirds executed with more ease, especially coming out of the neutral zone.
The defense for both sides moved up in the play quickly and were able to recover and get back quickly. Throughout the game, it was odd to see breakaways. The Thunderbirds managed one breakaway on a power play, but it was stopped by Owen. Many of the defensive players skated well and transitioned from offense to defense with ease. For the Thunderbirds, Kelly Murray stood out for positional awareness and smooth skating; defensive rookie Taylor Kezama stood out on the Pandas for similar reasons. Kezama’s skating and ability to take away shooting lanes and dangerous areas of the ice was on display early and continued through the game.
What became apparent as the game continued was that these two teams were well matched. They not only matched each other in talent and depth of talent but also in how they played the game. Speed and moving the puck well is key to both teams. While physicality certainly plays a part, it isn’t a focus for either team. It is more of a last resort when other more-favoured methods aren’t working.
The Pandas needed points from this series as they dropped a considerable amount of points in their last series, and the Thunderbirds did not. The Pandas have a difficult series of opponents to start their season and taking a large amount of points from these early games would have put them in a very strong position to repeat as the top team in the Canada West regular season. The Pandas have been unable to capitalize early; the Thunderbirds, on the other hand, have done an excellent job of securing as many points early in the season as possible. Also on the line for the Pandas was a milestone for Coach Howie Draper: Draper has 499 victories with the Pandas program; securing a 500th victory against a strong rival who had beaten them the night before would have been nice.
The Pandas next series will be a home-and-home affair with the Mount Royal Cougars, the team directly below them in the Canada West standings. Mount Royal has traditionally not been a strong team, but they currently have as many regulation wins as the Pandas. The Pandas need to take advantage of teams like Mount Royal and the University of Calgary Dinos (who are also below them in the standings) and beat them in regulation for the most available points.
The Thunderbirds have a very difficult test in their next series. They welcome the University of Manitoba Bisons, who are undefeated and at the top of the Canada West conference. If the Thunderbirds can defeat the Bisons in both games of the series, they’ll move into first place in the Canada West conference. If the series is spilt, the Bisons will remain on the top of the Canada West standings. This meeting, much like the one between the Thunderbirds and Pandas, will be one to watch, as it pits the runner-up for the Canada West title last year against last year's Canada West Conference Champion.