TORONTO, ONT – There’s extra pressure in the post-season when the U SPORTS national tournament makes its way to any conference, and that’s no different in 2022, as seven Canada West teams battle for a single earnable berth at the tournament.
With the TRU Wolfpack hosting the annual U SPORTS National Championship and earning automatic spots as hosts, the simple mission changes for Canada West teams from just getting to the final to winning the conference championship.
After the 2021 host Carleton Ravens missed the OUA Final, much to the ire of fans and teams Canada-wide, the Wolfpack will want to earn their way to the final eight while the rest of the conference battles for the second spot.
UBC Thunderbirds vs Saskatchewan Huskies
It’s been nine years since the UBC Thunderbirds lifted the U SPORTS National Championship, as the program is on the verge of its longest-ever dry spell, last winning in 2013.
Yet, winning Canada West has not been a problem for head coach Mike Mosher and his group, with every conference banner since the 2016 season making its way to the UBC Campus. This year, after topping the Canada West Pacific Division, the Thunderbirds also have a chance to host the CanWest Final Four.
First, though, is a match against a pesky Saskatchewan Huskies team that squeaked into the playoffs on a tiebreaker over the MacEwan Griffins, returning to the post-season fold after missing out in 2021.
The Huskies enter the playoffs after a dramatic late win against the Lethbridge Pronghorns and some tense scoreboard-watching to see how MacEwan performed. Yet, in the end, Luke Mackie’s goal proved to be the one to send them to the post-season.
UBC, however, are heavily favoured with a league-leading 37 goals scored, while their 12 goals against were the third-fewest in all of Canada West. At the same time, Saskatchewan scored 18 goals with 28 against.
“It’s always a goal to come first and to give ourselves the best advantage ahead of the playoffs and earning the chance to play games at home,” said UBC’s Mosher to Thunderbird Athletics. “Winning our division is an accomplishment. Every year teams around us get better, and we’ve now won the division nine times out of the last 10. But that said, it doesn’t get easier with playoffs now here.”
Watch for UBC rookie Asvin Chauhan when he is on the ball, as the first-year moves incredibly quickly. Meanwhile, leading goalscorer Victory Shumbusho will look to keep his form up after scoring 11 goals this season. Yet if he’s not ready to go, Mosher can turn to second-year Sebastian Dzikowski, who has come into his own this season with four goals in limited minutes. If UBC has an advantage over most U SPORTS teams, it’s depth, and that is often a factor that benefits during playoffs.
Expect the Thunderbirds to come out of the quarter-final unscathed, punching their ticket to yet another Final Four and bringing the Canada West championship match to Thunderbird Stadium, regardless of whether they’re in it.
Prediction: UBC Thunderbirds 4-1 Saskatchewan Huskies
TRU Wolfpack vs Calgary Dinos
In the first Canada West playoff matchup on Friday night, it’s only truly a must-win for one team. Yet there is pressure on both as they enter the season’s knockout stage.
For the Calgary Dinos, the season is truly done with a loss. Meanwhile, the TRU Wolfpack will still have a shot at a U SPORTS national championship if they fall to Calgary on home soi. Yet, the judgement that resigned upon the Carleton Ravens last year for not earning a spot at the tournament would come for the Wolfpack in mid-November.
It’s incredibly close to call this one, with both programs showing positives through their regular season campaigns. The Dinos finished the season with 23 goals scored, the most of any Prairie division team, while the Wolfpack generally struggled to score, posting 17 goals, the last among those playoff-bound.
With Ryan Lewis leading the way in attack with seven goals this season, the Wolfpack will look food their grinding style of play in their first-ever home playoff match on Friday. At the same time, former Pacific FC draft pick and all-time Canada West appearance leader Jan Pirretas Glasmacher holds down the centre of defence.
TRU’s stingy style is hard to break down and makes them the favourites over Calgary, except it won’t be an easy game as Dinos striker William Omoreniye led the team with four goals this season. At the same time, goalkeeper Jake Ruschkowski has been among CanWest’s best for several seasons, making 42 saves in a slightly down year.
The first game of the Canada West playoffs puts pressure on both teams, but none moreso than the Calgary Dinos, who need a win to extend their season.
Prediction: TRU Wolfpack 2-1 Calgary Dinos
UNBC Timberwolves vs Alberta Golden Bears
If the UNBC Timberwolves are going to have any success in the playoffs, expect Michael Henman’s name to be front and centre. “The Mailman,” as he goes by, is coming into the post-season with a Canada West single-season goalscoring record of 19 goals in 15 games, making him a constant threat to any opponent.
The Timberwolves scored 34 goals through the regular season, good for second in the conference only behind the table-topping UBC Thunderbirds. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Daniel Zadravec made a conference-leading 69 saves, with the third-highest save percentage throughout.
With a strong goalkeeper and one of the most in-form forwards in U SPORTS, the Timberwolves will be a tough team to beat, especially for an Alberta program that struggled to muster up much head-turning play in their five victories, four of which against non-playoff teams.
The only playoff team Alberta beat? UNBC — a 4-1 victory in Edmonton on Sept. 16, with first-year and newly minted All-Rookie teamer Habib Assem scoring a hat trick within the first 35 minutes.
Look for Assem and David Chung to lead the way in the attack for the Albertans while the UNBC midfield of Anthony Preston and Koby Greaves supplies Henman down the other side.
There is potential for this match to be a high-scoring one, with two exciting attacks going head to head with middle-of-the-table defences.
Prediction: UNBC Timberwolves 3-2 Alberta
MRU Cougars vs UFV Cascades
The main goal for the UFV Cascades when they travel to Calgary to take on Mount Royal on Saturday? Revenge.
It was a little under a year ago that the Cougars took down the Cascades 2-0 in the 2021 Canada West Bronze Medal match, denying the Cascades a third bronze medal since joining Canada West in 2006. These two teams did not cross paths in the 2022 regular season, meaning their quarterfinal matchup is the first chance for Fraser Valley to exact some retribution.
The Cascades struggled out of the gate in 2022, losing four of their first five matches but rebounded to pick up points in their next six (4-0-2). Ultimately an up-and-down season saw them finish 7-6-2 and grab the final playoff spot in the Canada West Pacific division.
A lot of the Cascades turnaround can be credited to Taylor Richardson. The fifth-year veteran not only finished tied for third in Canada West with eight goals, but he also picked up three game-winning goals, including in back-to-back wins over the Trinity Western Spartans on Oct. 7th and 9th that pushed the Cascades over .500.
In goal, the Cascades saw third-year Jackson Cowx finish in the middle of the pack defensively. Cowx finished ninth in goals allowed and goals against average with only three clean sheets. Crucially though, the third came in the final game of the year for UFV, a 2-0 win over UNBC that sent them into the playoffs on a high. They will be in tough against a very talented Mount Royal Cougars team, though.
For those Cougars, the machine that carried them to first in the Central Division in 2021 only to stall out in the Canada West Final Four a year ago kept right on rolling in 2022. The Cougars finished on top of the Canada West Prairie Division with a record of 8-0-6, improving their .700 win percentage from a season ago to .714.
A year after finishing second in Canada West with nine goals, Mohamed El Gandour was back on the leaderboard, finishing in the top three of Canada West in shots (45), goals (8), and game-winning goals (4). Cougars rookie David Schaefer chipped in six goals himself, finishing second in Canada West among rookies and earning a spot on the Canada West All-Rookie team.
In the goal, Sterling Kerr was simply sterling for the Cougars, leading the conference with eight clean sheets and just seven total goals allowed in 14 starts.
The Cascades have emotions on their side, but the Mount Royal attack will likely be too much for them to handle.
Prediction: Mount Royal Cougars 2-1 UFV Cascades
WITH FILES FROM: Richard Coffey