With 20 of 28 games already in the record books, the Canada West playoff picture is starting to become clear. There’s always the possibility of a surprise — take last year’s Calgary Dinos and their improbable run to the playoffs, for example — but the top contenders have already established themselves. The divide between those at the top of the table and the teams struggling remains a substantial one. UBC, the top team, has a formidable 49 points, while the team holding the last playoff berth, Mount Royal, has only 25. Lethbridge, currently in 7th place, have only 14 points. As six of the eight teams in Canada West will advance to the postseason, the playoff picture is starting to appear. Without Lethbridge going on an improbable undefeated streak, the playoff picture seems set.
This coming weekend will have important ramifications for the overall playoff picture as UBC and the University of Alberta, the two top ranked teams in Canada West, will receive byes to the semi-final round of the Canada West conference postseason. As only one point separates the Alberta Pandas, currently in second place, from the University of Manitoba Bisons, the fact the Pandas play the Calgary Dinos has to be seen as promising for the Pandas.
The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary renew the Battle of Alberta with a traditional home and home series this weekend. The Pandas secured two road wins in Regina to move ahead of the Bisons, who split their series with the UBC Thunderbirds. This year, the Dinos have been the worst team in the league. Their offense has managed little output and forward Sasha Vafina has only 11 points. Calgary had high hopes for their dynamic player after a strong rookie season that saw her collect 35 points. Meanwhile, the Pandas’ offense is lead by Alex Poznikoff with 16 points and reinforced by 14-point campaigns for Amy Boucher and Autumn MacDougall. The Pandas have also been incredibly successful defensively. Their penalty kill has an 85.4% success rate and they have given up 29 goals in comparison to the 44 they have scored. The Dinos, on the other hand, have allowed 65 goals while only scoring 30. This sets up a matchup which favors the Pandas in each statistical category.
The Manitoba Bisons play the Lethbridge Pronghorns this weekend, a matchup which favors the Bisons. Manitoba has two players in the top ten of Canada West scoring, while Lethbridge’s top offensive contributor is found in 38th position. Lethbridge’s Alicia Anderson will look to make things difficult for the Bisons, as she’s been solid throughout the season and has often been the difference for the Pronghorns in games where the opposition has outshot Lethbridge. Anderson was a rock for the Pronghorns in late November when they played the Pandas, despite the lopsided score lines. Much like the matchup between the Pandas and the Dinos, the Bisons are statistically a much stronger team. They have scored 59 goals, have a power play with a success rate of over 20%, and boast a penalty kill with a nearly 91% success rate. The Pronghorns’ special teams are almost 10% less effective in each category. In addition, the Pronghorns have taken approximately 50 more penalty minutes this season, meaning the Bisons’ power play may see multiple opportunities to make the Pronghorns pay.
The Regina Cougars and the Mount Royal Cougars also meet in a matchup with possible playoff ramifications. Six points are on the line and only six points separate these two teams. Regina has the top scorer in the Canada West Conference in Jaycee Magwood, while Mount Royal’s Sarah Weninger is the highest scoring player for her team. This is a more even matchup. Regina has spent the most time in the penalty box than any team in all three leagues in U Sports. Mount Royal’s power play only has a 12% success rate, but if Regina loses focus or discipline, it may lead to opportunities for Mount Royal to close the gap between the teams. Regina has more successful special teams and has both scored and allowed 47 goals. Mount Royal has scored only 29 goals and allowed 64. If Mount Royal can turn the series into a defensive affair, they will stand a much better chance of earning some points over the weekend.
The final series of the weekend will be the most competitive, as the University of Saskatchewan Huskies face off against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds are the top team in Canada West and have been solidly in control of the conference for most of the season. However, the Huskies were able to beat the Thunderbirds at home early in the season. The Thunderbirds have four of the top ten scorers in Canada West, while the Huskies only have two, but the offensive capabilities of both teams should make for an interesting matchup. UBC has also found themselves in the penalty box frequently this season, second only to Regina. The UBC power play is fourth in the country but the Huskies’ penalty kill has a 92% success rate and is second in the country. This series could become a matchup of special teams and goaltending. Saskatchewan’s goaltenders have a slightly better save percentage, but both teams are fairly even between the pipes in a statistical sense. This series may be a high scoring and more even affair, making it the most thrilling series of the weekend.
This weekend will help to define the details of the play off picture for the Canada West conference. With only three series left after this weekend, it will be a good test to see how the contenders deal with the lower ranked teams and if either of the teams outside the playoff picture make a push towards the postseason. As several playoff contenders clash on Friday and Saturday, it will also be a good test to see how the teams have grown from the start of the year and if standout players really can change a game.