It’s go time in the U Sports conference of Canada West, as the western Canadian provinces prepare to kick off their playoffs on Wednesday.
Canada West, similar to the Atlantic Sport Conference has an odd playoff structure, with six teams qualifying for the postseason. The top two teams earn themselves a bye past the first round, while the other four play a best of three to determine a winner.
Something that has often been the case in Canada west is the distinct separate tiers of teams. This year is no exception, with the Alberta Golden Bears and Saskatchewan Huskies having much heftier point hauls than their rivals. Those two teams both finished with 46 points and earn themselves a week off before hitting the ice in playoff action. The tiebreaker, however, is in the hands of the Golden Bears, who bested the Huskies in their matchups over the season.
With those two teams skipping the opening round, we are left with two series to preview. The third-place Calgary Dinos, who face the Manitoba Bisons, and the Mount Royal Cougars who clash with UBC’s Thunderbirds.
All four teams qualified for the playoffs, but once again there is a tiered split between 3/4 and 5/6. Calgary and Mount Royal, who occupy the higher seeds both finished with over 38 points. That’s over 15 points more than the 5th place Thunderbirds. It’s not even just the points split in the two, as most of the stats are also tiered in some way.
All of this tiering leads to an expectation when looking at the playoff matchup, however, surprises do happen and games will still be played, so it’s only fitting that a preview still is written.
Calgary Dinos VS Manitoba Bisons
Taking a look at the first matchup, we have the Calgary Dinos against the Manitoba Bisons. First of all, the two teams didn’t exactly finish the season neck in neck, rather they were separated by 17 points.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Bisons if they want anything from the series, however, they do have one thing in their favour. The Bisons won the last matchup between the two sides, although it did take double overtime. However, that is the only positive solace that Manitoba can hold onto as they enter the first round.
For Calgary, they may not even have to rely on their 5-on-5 play to find victory, as powerplays are expected to arrive at their doorstep in bulk. The Bisons are the league leaders in penalty minutes, while also boasting the second-worst penalty kill in Canada West. Calgary, who has had a reasonable share of success should have an easy time with the Bisons.
As for players to watch, Manitoba’s offence relies heavily on the back of Adam Henry, who has scored 22 points (11G 11A) this season. He is the only player on the Bisons who finished inside the top 20 in league scoring, meanwhile, the top 10 contains two Calgary players.
For Calgary, they won’t have to rely on anyone in particular, but Matt Alfaro, who led the conference in scoring could certainly hit a rich string of form in the first round.
The first game of this series goes Friday night at the home of the Calgary Dinos, with coverage to follow from Andrew Walker here on 49 Sports.
Mount Royal Cougars vs UBC Thunderbirds
The battle of the tiers. These two teams are separated by 15 points, an all too present theme in this year’s edition of the Canada West playoffs.
It has not been a very long time since these two teams last met, as they closed the regular season with a pair of games against each other in Vancouver. They split those two games, both of which featured a very high level of competition. UBC won the first game by a goal, then lost the regular-season finale 4-2.
The level of familiarity is going to be of substantial aid to the Thunderbirds, who now know what the successful tactics of the Cougars are. UBC managed to limit Mount Royals’ top scorer, Riley Lindgren to a single point, albeit a goal. The former Lethbridge Hurricane has been an important figure for the Cougars this season, taking his play to another level to become the key cog in their offensive engine.
For UBC, the scoring has been led by Tyler Sandhu, who leads the team with 12 goals. In his third season with UBC, he has had one of his most successful years in the blue and gold. Previously, his career-high was 23 points in his rookie season, a total which he matched this year. He will have to score goals if the Thunderbirds are to get through.
An important factor with both teams will be to stay out of the penalty box. Both of them are ranked one and two in Canada West playoff percentage, each hovering around 23.5%. If I had to hedge a bet, I would be guessing that the team who takes the least penalties is going to win this series.
This series will be played in Calgary at the Flames Community Arenas, with puck drop set for 6:30 PM Pacific.
Cover Photo: Bob Frid