Winning Canada West has almost been a formality for the Golden Bears hockey team in recent years.
Having failed to win the conference title only three times since 2001 before this year, you would be forgiven if you assumed the Bears would win again in 2016. This wasn’t the case, as they were swept this past weekend by the nation’s top team, the Saskatchewan Huskies.
The Huskies started the series off in dominating fashion on Friday, winning the opener 4-0. The Bears were still in the game in the third period, only trailing 1-0, but the Huskies pressed home their advantage in the second half of the period. Parker Thomas doubled Saskatchewan’s lead at the 13:30 mark, and under a minute later, Levi Cable converted his second goal of the playoffs on a penalty shot, putting the game out of reach.
Jordon Cooke, fresh off receiving the Joseph A. Sullivan Trophy for being the most outstanding player in the conference, stopped all 28 shots he faced for the shutout.
Bears head coach Serge Lajoie said inconsistent effort was what led to his team’s loss on Friday night.
“We didn’t apply ourselves to play the game we needed to against a very good Saskatchewan team,” he said. “We were putting in effort, but it was only sporadic, it wasn’t a complete effort on our part.”
The Bears came out with more jump on Saturday as they faced the prospect of having to win or go home empty handed. They finally solved Cooke just 3:31 into the game, as James Dobrowolski buried his first goal of the playoffs to give the green and gold a 1-0 lead. The Bears were able to hold the lead until early in the third period, but then the Huskies struck back. Jesse Ross tied the game just over three minutes into the period, and then Logan McVeigh put them up for good just 15 seconds later.
Kohl Bauml added his third of the playoffs later in the period, and while Jordan Rowley was able to get one back for the Bears in the dying seconds. But it was too little too late, and the Huskies won the game 3-2, and with it, their first Canada West crown since 2012.
Lajoie said his team’s effort was better on Saturday night, but he credited the Huskies for their compete level as well.
“The effort was there. The willingness to battle and compete was a lot higher on Saturday,” he said. “(Saskatchewan) just looked to have more jump, and more consistent pressure on us.”
Even with the unfavourable results on the weekend, the Bears did still earn a spot at CIS Nationals in Halifax this year. With just over a week to prepare, Lajoie said his focus would mostly be on allowing his team to recharge both mentally and physically.
“We’ve had to play very intense hockey for the last two weeks just to get a bye,” he said. “The biggest focus is for us to reset, regroup, and get ourselves both mentally and physically to go into nationals.”
The Bears won’t be going into nationals as conference champs, but Lajoie said he was confident in his team’s chances heading into the tournament.
“I believe we do have the group to perform at a level on the big stage for us to still be one of the favourites in the tournament,” he said. “Practice (this week) is an opportunity for us to put everything in place so that everyone is confident and comfortable with how we need to play.” “That’s not so much physical preparation as it is mental preparation so we have the right mindset.”
The last time the Bears won the national championship without winning Canada West was in 2000. The tournament gets underway in Halifax on March 17.