The road to the CIS national championships starts this weekend at Clare Drake arena, as the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas hockey teams open their playoffs with semifinal match ups against the Mount Royal Cougars and Manitoba Bisons respectively.
The Bears solidified a second place finish in Canada West with four straight wins to end the season, including sweeps over both the Cougars and first-place Saskatchewan Huskies. In the final weekend of the season, the Bears took down their provincial rivals on back-to-back nights, ensuring them a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Even though the two final wins against Mount Royal were important for earning that coveted first-round bye, head coach Serge Lajoie said they were able significant in terms of the play he saw out of his team during the final stretch run.
“I think what was more important was making sure that every guy, to a man, was playing the game the right way,” he said. “There was a playoff type intensity both games, and I liked how our guys responded, and was happy with the result.”
Overall, the Bears won the season series against the Cougars 3-1, but Mount Royal will present a tough opponent for the green and gold. The Cougars boast a solid offensive attack, led by forwards Tyler Fiddler and Cam Maclise, who finished second and ninth in Canada West scoring respectively, and both produced at over a point-per-game this year.
Lajoie emphasized the need to stay structured against a good transition team like Mount Royal. He said when the Bears lost that structure is when they struggled against the Cougars during the regular season.
“When we got ourselves into trouble is when we didn’t place enough importance on our structure, and we didn’t have good awareness in certain areas,” he said. “They’re a dynamic team, they move pucks toward our net very quickly, so we need to have numbers in the neutral zone to limit their speed.”
In terms of the team’s practice habits and preparation leading up to their semifinal, Lajoie said it was mostly about keeping the attitude loose at this point of the season.
“There’s not much coaching that goes on anymore,” he said. “As coaches, we sit back, we make adjustments, and we let the boys play. We just need to make sure the guys know the exact game plan, and it’s just about fine tuning, getting the guys in good spirits, and getting them ready to go.”
On the women’s side, the Pandas finished first in Canada West, and therefore also had the virtue of a quarterfinal bye this past week, and now look forward to their semifinal series against the fifth-ranked Manitoba Bisons. The Bisons are fresh off a thrilling series victory over the fourth-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies, winning the last two games of the series after losing the first. The deciding third game was an absolute thriller, with the Bisons eventually winning in the fifth overtime period, advancing to the semis after the longest game in CIS history.
The Pandas will be looking for second straight Canada West title, and face a familiar foe in the Bisons, as the two squads faced off in last year’s Canada West finals, with the green and gold coming out on top in a series sweep.
“It’s going to be a tough battle,” Pandas head coach Howie Draper said. “Any game against any opponent can go two completely different ways.”
According to Draper, the key to a series victory for the Pandas is keeping the Bisons away from the front of the net, where they like score the majority of their goals.
“Manitoba’s the type of team that lives and dies at net front,” he said. “They’ll do anything they can to create chaos, so we’ve got to be strong, box them out, and make sure we’re doing good things with the puck when it’s loose.”
Both teams will host their respective semifinals at Clare Drake Arena this upcoming weekend, with Pandas games starting at 2 P.M. on Friday, and 1 P.M. on Saturday and Sunday if necessary. The Bears get the prime time slot, with their games starting at 6 P.M. on Friday, and 7 P.M. Saturday and Sunday if necessary.