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Golden Bears hockey heads into CIS Championship in unfamiliar position as underdog

The Golden Bears hockey team is charting some unfamiliar territory as they head to Halifax for the CIS Men’s Hockey National Championship this week.

The tournament itself isn’t something the Bears are unfamiliar with. They’ve been to the big show in each of the past three years and they’ve taken home the gold medal twice in a row now. The unfamiliar part of the experience for this group is the fact they’re coming into the tournament without the label of “top seed” attached to their chest.

Earlier this month, the Bears were swept in the Canada West Finals by the Saskatchewan Huskies, marking the first time they hadn’t been crowned Conference Champions since the 2011-12 season. In the next three seasons after that, they were unstoppable, plowing through the playoffs each year and earning top rank at the 2013, 2014, and 2015 National Championships.

This year, the Bears will check in as the sixth seed, qualifying for the tournament as the runner up from Canada West. While that doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it as “top seed” does, head coach Serge Lajoie said that the players on his team have kept their spirits high and their mind on their goal.

“They have a lot of pride and our objective was to win Canada West,” he said. “It’s not like we took those losses lightly. It’s a sign of maturity to keep everything in perspective and I think that’s what our team did.”

“Things haven’t changed regardless of the Saskatchewan weekend. We still have to win three games to reach our ultimate goal.”

The path to that goal will begin on Thursday as the Bears take on the hometown St. Francis Xavier X-Men, who come into the tournament as the third seed after earning a sweep over the heavily favoured University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) finals.

Since the Bears only play teams from their own conference, they don’t have any head-to-head experience against the X-Men, or any of the teams they’ll possibly be facing in the tournament aside from the Huskies.

Lajoie said in order to prepare for teams they aren’t familiar with, him and the coaching staff need to study videotapes and alter their systematic play and preparation accordingly.

For the players, though, it’s the same as it always is. They need to look back on their own games and highlight the aspects of their play that they can focus on.

“We don’t have to fix anything. We understand how to play,” he said. “If we want to position ourselves to win a championship, we’re going to really have to pay attention to details and play the game the right way.”

Lajoie also iterated that there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with the way his team played in the series against Saskatchewan. The losses ultimately boiled down to the team being exhausted both physically and mentally.

“After seeing them compete against Saskatchewan, I think the biggest thing isn’t motivation, it was the physical and mental rest,” he said. “With the opportunity that’s presented itself, I know that this group is going to be ready.”

The tournament begins on Thursday with the Bears taking on the X-Men and the Huskies battling the Carleton Ravens. On Friday, New Brunswick plays the Western University Mustangs, while the Saint Mary’s University Huskies play the top seeded University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières Patriotes.

All games will be played at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax and both of the semi-final games and the gold medal game will be broadcasted nationally on Sportsnet 360.

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