Saskatoon, SK- Eight teams began the year, six teams qualified for playoffs and now only two teams stand. It is finals week in Canada West, with a chance of a trophy on the line for both teams. Fans of Canada West have become accustomed to the domination of the Saskatchewan Huskies and Alberta Golden Bears through the last few years, as both teams have made multiple appearances in the final. However, it’s different this year as the Golden Bears bowed out of the playoffs in the second round to the UBC Thunderbirds, who are making their first finals appearance since the 1970s.
How did we get here? Well, it’s been a smooth ride for one team, and a tough, emotional ride for the other. The Saskatchewan Huskies finished in second place in Canada West, yet they ere only a hair behind the first-place Golden Bears. By all accounts, the Huskies expected to be playing in the final, so that is a mission accomplished.
Let’s break it down, as we go behind the numbers.
The Huskies did not stray far away from their initial plan, as they swept their only series up to this point, after having a bye through the first round of the playoffs. The Huskies did not put on a dominant display against the Calgary Dinos throughout their two games, however, they avoided any mistakes and ended the series in the minimum two games.
Because of the Saskatoon-based school only played one playoff series, their regular season stats ring truer than the same numbers would with their opponents, the UBC Thunderbirds.
Looking at their season, the Huskies were one of the higher scoring teams in the league, being one of the three teams to put up over 100 goals on the season. Compare that to UBC, who only put up 72 in regular season play, and the difference is pretty clear.
However, there are a few stats that have to be focused on. While UBC may not have scored as much or have finished as high in the standings as the huskies, they do hold a big advantage when it comes to how the teams compare on the powerplay. UBC’s man-advantage squad finished the regular season with the second-best powerplay in the league at 21%, meanwhile, the Huskies were way down at the bottom of that table with 17.7. It is not a decisive stat by any means, but there is still something to be said about the skill that UBC harnesses when presented with the opportunity.
Piggybacking off the previous statistic, one has to consider how good each team penalty kill is. Although UBC may have a great powerplay, they are going to be in tough against the Huskies who knocked off 87% of their penalties this season, while also having only allowed a single goal on six attempts through one round of playoff games.
The special teams battle is going to be a very intriguing one, as it is one of the countries hottest powerplays, clashing head to head with one of the stingiest penalty kills. That being said,d it’s not entirely the old adage of an unstoppable force hits an immovable object, but it’s as close as you’re going to see when it comes to U Sports hockey.
Between the pipes: Kozun vs Toth
This is going to be an interesting goalie battle. We have one of the best goalies in the U Sports postseason, and a goalie who has shut down teams while also chipping inoffensively. Ya, Saskatchewan’s Taran Kozun did score on an empty net earlier this year, but his main purpose is to stop pucks, so we’ll focus on that.
A quick look at Rylan Toth’s stats in the postseason, and it is easy to see how the Thunderbirds have gotten to this point. He has turned aside 203 of the 217 shots he has faced and is running with a .923 save percentage. If we break those numbers down, into some smaller portions, Toth is routinely stopping 33.8 shots a game. That is roughly equal to the number of shots that the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings are giving up per game. The Red Wings have allowed the third-most shots on net in the NHL, with the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks the teams above them. Yet does anyone consider the Red Wings are a championship calibre team? Maybe the players in the locker room, but other than that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone else.
Toth is outperforming the team that is in front of him right now. By nearly every statistical measure that Toth has control over, he triumphed, but only because the Thunderbirds defence is so easy for opponents to pick apart. You only have to look as far as Game 1 against Alberta to see UBC play their perfect hockey. 17 shots for, 2 goals for but 53 shots against. They did win, and they are in the final, but it is only because their goaltender has consistently held them in each win they’ve gotten.
If UBC are going to win this series, it is simple: Toth has to take control.
For the Huskies, the two games that they played against the Dinos give us a very small sample size, so once again we will go into the regular season. Taran Kozun has not had a great playoff, yet the Huskies are still in the final. Kozun has allowed 5 goals on 40 shots through two games.
To put that in perspective, Kozun has faced less rubber in 120 minutes of play than Toth faced in 40 with UBC. This is not to say that Kozun is not as strong as Toth, but that his team’s defence is able to shut down shooting lanes much better than the Thunderbirds.
In the regular season, the shot share he faced was still low but had a much higher save percentage. He posted a .931 save percentage in the regular season, good enough for the best in the league. With that, he should be in the conversation for the conference’s best goalie.
So what has plagued him through the first two games of the playoffs? Traffic. Kozun has struggled with traffic. Three of the four goals which he allowed in the final game against the Calgary Dinos came with 3 or more players obstructing his view, and in some cases potential movement.
It will be the responsibility of the Huskies to make sure that Kozun can see the puck as much as possible, as when he can, he is the best goaltender there can be.
That is just a couple of things to look out for in the Canada West men’s hockey final. Both teams have already booked their spot in the national finals which are being held in Halifax in mid-march. As for a winner of Canada West, it’s easy to pick the Huskies, although UBC’s recent triumphs have made it difficult. However, I think that these playoffs have already been too taxing on the Thunderbirds, who will fall in two games to the Huskies who will win the playoff