This Sunday saw next weekend’s Canada West final set. The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds will host the University of Alberta Pandas in a battle of the first and second ranked teams. While the Thunderbirds have looked dominant all season, no team has had a hotter second half to the season than the Pandas. The Pandas worked their way from fourth place in the standings at the season’s halfway point to a second place finish with a 17-4-4-3 record. In contrast, the Thunderbirds have had a firm grip on first place in the Canada West since the start of the season, posting an impressive 20-4-3-1 record over the 28-game season. In fact, the Thunderbirds are the top ranked team in the U Sports Top Ten, with the Pandas in sixth. These two teams have played some exciting and close games over the course of the season and the finals look to be no different.
The semi-finals concluded when the Thunderbirds edged out the University of Saskatchewan Huskies by a score of 3 to 1, securing a 2 to 1 series win. The Huskies were the team with the most success against the Thunderbirds over the course of the season, managing a split in both series played between the two teams. The third game of the series came after the Thunderbirds won game one of the series by a score of 2 to 0, while the Huskies answered by taking a close second game by a score of 1 to 0. Finally, the Thunderbirds took game three to advance to the finals and have the opportunity to defend their Canada West title.
The University of Alberta Pandas met the University of Manitoba Bisons in a repeat of last year’s semi-final. However, the results were different this year, as the Pandas managed a sweep of the Bisons, earning their fourth straight win against a Manitoba team with the top offensive player in the Canada West Conference. The Pandas managed a 3 to 2 victory in the first game of the series and won the second game of the series by the same score. The Pandas have had a bit of a rivalry with the Bisons as they have met in the last two years in the Canada West playoffs. Sweeping the Bisons puts the Pandas in a good place with a lot of confidence going into their meeting with the Thunderbirds.
As the Coupe U Cup is being held in Napanee, Ontario this year, both Canada West finalists have booked their place in the event. The series between these two teams is now about both ensuring the best possible position to succeed in Ontario and for the right to be Canada West Champions.
The Thunderbirds are a big, fast, and skilled team that can generate offense on multiple lines. They won three of their four meetings with the Pandas, winning each except for the last game in Vancouver. With a power play ranked third in the country with a 19.3% conversion rate, the Thunderbirds will look to take advantage of the Pandas’ penalty woes by playing on their home ice to ensure they enter the Coupe U Cup as back-to-back Canada West Champions. While the Pandas are fifth in Canada West for penalty minutes with 279, the Thunderbirds have spent even more time in the penalty box, with 296 minutes for a fourth place finish in the Canada West.
Cassandra Vilgrain and Nicole Saxvik will look to add to their impressive point totals. The UBC snipers rank second and fourth in Canada West scoring, with only Alberta’s Alex Poznikoff between them in third place. Vilgrain is a fourth year, but Saxvik is in her last year of eligibility (as are many of the Thunderbirds players) and this will be her last chance to add to her career totals. The Thunderbirds will also rely on their talented defense to shut down the Pandas’ top offensive threats of Poznikoff, Autumn MacDougall, and Amy Boucher. The UBC defense is also able to add to the Thunderbirds offense. Kelly Murray is the top scoring defenseman in the Canada West, while Mairead Bast is fourth, and the Pandas’ top scoring defenseman (Abby Benning) is twelfth in the Canada West.
Though the Thunderbirds seem to have an offensive advantage, the Pandas’ defense has weathered offensive storms before, anchored by fifth year goalie Lindsey Post. Post is one of the most decorated goaltenders in Canada West. With a goals against average of 1.31, only fellow Pandas netminder Danya Owen has allowed less goals. Post has anchored the Pandas’ second half push and will be important if the Pandas wish to win their thirteenth Canada West title.
The Pandas’ offensive output has been driven by Poznikoff, a second year forward who has had an impressive campaign including a trip to the Universiade. Poznikoff and line mate MacDougall have had a great deal of success creating space for themselves in front of the net and holding onto the puck in the corners, despite being smaller than most of their competition. Rookie forward Kennedy Ganser has joined them on the top line and been impressive over the season. Ganser has made an immediate impact for the Pandas, adding offense and completing an impressive top line.
Over the course of the season, both the Pandas and Thunderbirds have set themselves apart as the top teams in the Canada West Conference. The final match up between the two teams is a very close one, which most statistical measures reflect. For instance, the UBC penalty kill is 89.1% effective and the Alberta penalty kill is 86.3% effective. The starting goaltenders have 0.922 and 0.929 save percentages, respectively. Whether or not the Thunderbirds draw some advantage from playing at home remains to be seen, as the Pandas’ only victory was away.
The Canada West Final will be decided March 3rd through 5th in the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sport Center in Vancouver. After leaving it all on the ice, both teams will travel to represent Canada West at the Coupe U Cup from March 16th through the 19th in the Strathcona Paper Centre in Napanee.