VANCOUVER, BC – Over two years ago, the Alberta Golden Bears fell to the UBC Thunderbirds in the Canada West semifinal in Edmonton, leaving the top-ranked Alberta program out of the eventually cancelled U CUP.
UBC went on to lose the Canada West final that year to the Saskatchewan Huskies, before having their U CUP quarterfinal matchup with the UNB Reds canceled as COVID took its hold on North America.
While this year’s Canada West championship series does not include the Huskies, it includes a reinvigorated Alberta team, and a UBC program hoping to get over their Championship hump that has eluded them for over 50 years.
After finishing atop the standings in the regular season, the Golden Bears host the three-game series, welcoming the Thunderbirds to Clare Drake Arena in Edmonton, with Game 1 set for Friday night at 7:00pm local.
How did they get here?
The UBC Thunderbirds got off to a flying start this season, benefitting from a veteran core that had their U CUP chance was taken away from them, as well as a young group of rookies that committed to the school with championship thoughts on their minds.
The Thunderbirds began the season with a six-game win streak, before losing their first game of the season against Alberta in double overtime. While the hot start had them atop the standings at the December break, their two games dropped to Alberta proved the difference in them finishing second.
For the Golden Bears, 2021-22 started in an up and down fashion. They would win a few, then drop a game. However, when the calendar rolled around to 2022, Alberta went on a tear. Finishing off the season with 9 wins in 10 games, the Bears easily clinched the first seed in Canada West.
Both teams earned byes directly to the Canada West semi-finals. For UBC, they faced off against the Mount Royal Cougars. After romping to a 5-0 win in game 1, the Thunderbirds found themselves forced to a game 3 after MRU snatched a 3-2 win. In a close-fought contest, the T-Birds saw off the Cougars 2-1 to clinch a spot in the finals.
As for the Golden Bears, they went head to head in the battle of Alberta, going against rival Calgary Dinos. It wasn’t much of a battle though, as Alberta easily dispatched their opponents with 6-2 and 6-1 wins.
“It’s a very different vibe than when we were in this situation two years ago,” said UBC Head Coach Sven Butenschon to UBC Athletics. “I think we were going into Saskatchewan [in the 2020 conference final], everything was going so fast and we didn’t really stay in that fight, in that competitive mode. I’m not saying we got complacent, but it’s just not the same vibe that it is right now. Right now I don’t see any complacency with the group. I think everyone is still laser focussed on going into Alberta and winning the first game Friday night.”
How do things break down?
The storyline heading into the finals is one of a Goliath and a David. From top to bottom, the Golden Bears are a formidable team. With Noah Philip and Matt Fonteyne leading the scoring in the playoffs, Alberta can also call upon Gary Haden, Josh Prokop, and Eric Florchuk. Between the pipes, Taz Burman and Nick Schneider have both been stellar. There’s not a major hole in this lineup, and that’s how the Golden Bears prefer it to be.
UBC comes into this matchup as the underdog with serious upset potential. Don’t forget, the Thunderbirds were leading Canada West through the first half of the season and have shown they can beat Alberta on any given day. They have one of the best netminders in Rylan Toth, and the pieces in front of him like Tyler Sandhu and Jonathan Smart are very capable players in their own right.
It’s a mouthwatering matchup between these two teams, each with something to prove in these finals. Both have secured their places in the national tournament, but only one can call themselves Canada West champions.