Vancouver, BC- They are one of the best stories that U Sports hockey has seen in a long time. The UBC Thunderbirds, who were out of a playoff spot in mid-January have qualified for the U Sports national championships this week in Halifax.
It’s fair to say that nobody expected them to get to this point. While at least no one in the public was going to come out and say that this team was something special, the belief in the locker room must have been something else.
Canada West is a very peculiar conference, as it is very much divided into tiers. At the top, you have the famously successful Alberta Golden Bears; they’re joined by the Saskatchewan Huskies. However, the following teams all jockey for position throughout the season, and sometimes even a middle-tier will form. With all of that taken into consideration, the fact the UBC Thunderbirds were able to crack a seemingly solidified top pair is a miracle.
Although they are in Halifax on equal terms of everyone else, there is something about this team that is different than the others. No other school had to play and win overtime in game three after conceding with less than a second, no other school had their goalie regularly stop double the shots of his own team, and most importantly, no other school beat one of Canada’s top three teams.
All of that mentioned above is what the UBC Thunderbirds have had to endure through their playoff run. It’s often been said that adversity can help bond teammates; well that has been proven true in the Thunderbirds success.
In speaking with 49 prior to his team’s Canada West Finals series, UBC head coach Sven Butenschon reflected on some of the moments that had gotten them to that point. One of the key points he focused on was the overtime win in round one over the Mount Royal Cougars.
The Thunderbirds were winning the game, about to advance to the second round for the first time since 2007, but the unrelenting effort from the Cougars pushed the puck past netminder Rylan Toth and sent the decisive matchup into overtime.
“That was a difficult moment for our group. When you sit in the dressing room after, you think about it, but once we came out after we knew we needed to be aggressive and confident and that’s exactly what we did,” Said Butenschon.
It was when Austin Vetterl’s shot rippled the twine and sent the Cougars Calgary crowd into disbelief, that the Thunderbirds knew their team was something special.
After the Cougars, came the behemoth of Canada West: The Alberta Golden Bears.
It was clear from game one who the classier team was. The Golden Bears controlled the game, they put 53 shots on net, but luckily for the T-Birds, their main man between the pipes, Rylan Toth parried away 51 of them. Down at the other end, with just 17 shots, the Thunderbirds managed to pull out a 3-2 victory in the first game.
Game two against Alberta proved to be a wake-up call for the T-Birds, as they fell 6-1. The loss only invigorated them for the third game, where Tyler Sandhu scored to send them to the U Cup and the Canada West Final.
In the final, they simply were not up to the level of the Huskies and ended up falling in the minimum two games. That being said, they now have experience against two of the best teams in the country and are as prepared as they can be ahead of taking on the No. 1 ranked UNB Reds in the U Cup quarter-final.
Player to watch: Goalie, Rylan Toth
For UBC, they win and lose games from the play of their goalie. Rylan Toth has been the definition of spectacular this season and even more so in the playoffs, he’s the biggest reason why they have reached this point. Through eight playoff games, the former Seattle Thunderbird stopped 257 shots, good for 32.5 on average per game. While 32.5 may seem like a regular number, the number of shots against the Golden Bears and Huskies were both significantly more, as in each series he was called upon to make 40+ stops.
Although Toth could not steal the series away from the Huskies, don’t necessarily count him out. With the nationals being a one-game knockout, the chance that Toth could put on a heater and shut out the high-powered Reds is a possibility. Toth has big-game experience; he has played in the memorial cup and has won a WHL championship, so big stages and big crowds are no worry for the Saskatoon native.
The worry: Too much time shorthanded
If there is one big thing to worry about for UBC, it is the fact that they led the Canada West playoffs in times shorthanded. Over the eight playoff games, the Thunderbirds were shorthanded 42 times. That is more than double the next most, which was Calgary (who played fewer games) with 15. Fortunately for the British Columbians, their penalty kill is clicking along at 83.3%, which only trails the Huskies for the top of the category. Whatever the case may be, UNB are a very strong team and the Thunderbirds should be worried if they find themselves in the box.
It has not been a walk in the park for the UBC Thunderbirds so far, and it’s certainly not getting any easier. However, if everything goes right, the T-Birds have the talent, desire, and certainly the goaltender to take a real shot at advancing in the tournament. Their game against UNB will be on Friday, March 13th at 10AM PT, with streaming available via the CBC Sports platforms.
Cover Photo: Bob Frid