CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – In single knockout competitions, a turning point can change a game — that’s no different at the U SPORTS Men’s Hockey Championship.
On Friday, the Alberta Golden Bears posted their second straight 7-0 win in the tournament’s quarter-finals, eliminating the OUA West champion Windsor Lancers from U SPORTS championship contention.
Yet, despite the Golden Bears matching their scoreline from the 2022 quarter-final against the Acadia Axemen, the turning point came just a few minutes into the game.
While Alberta scored on their first shot, with Nolan Volcan beating Nathan Torchia, everything changed when Windsor’s Robbie Burt was called for a head contact hit on Alberta’s Ryan Hughes, giving the Canada West runner-ups a five-minute advantage in the first period.
With the best powerplay in the country through the Canada West season, the Golden Bears continued that on the nationals stage, quickly elevating the score to 4-0 within the first five minutes of the opening frame.
From Eric Florchuk’s tally to a pair from Tyler Preziuso, the opening minutes gave the Lancers a monumental mountain to climb to stay in the game while Alberta established themselves as a team on a mission, having lost the U SPORTS final in heartbreaking fashion in 2022.
“We know that the hardest game is the first game at this tournament,” said Golden Bears head coach Ian Herbers. “We started slow every weekend during the season, so it was nice to have that response coming right out of the gate, capitalizing on our powerplay immediately and not waiting for things to happen.”
That fast start forced the Lancers to adjust and play behind against a team that is difficult to break down at the best of times. Head coach Kevin Hamlin called a timeout to allow his team to regroup, and from that point on, the Lancers went toe to toe, eventually only losing 2-0 at five-on-five play.
“I think that when you chase the game against a team like Alberta, you’re up against it,” Hamlin told 49 Sports. “The game didn’t start the way we had planned it, and that unfortunate major obviously had a huge impact on the course of the game.”
“When you can take a team like Alberta to 2-0 five on five, that’s a pretty good team.”
Windsor really began to settle into the game after the time out, with U SPORTS Goalie of the Year Nathan Torchia finding his form through the rest of the game, only beaten on defensive breakdowns on Alberta’s powerplays which went five for eight.
The Golden Bears made it 5-0 early in the second period with a goal from rookie Jakin Smallwood at even strength before an early third period goal by Curtis Trolly on the advantage raised the score to 6-0.
Alberta added their final mark midway through the third, as Preziuso completed his hat trick and five-point night.
While the Lancers fired shots on Alberta’s Ethan Kruger between the pipes but couldn’t hit the back of the net despite forcing the Golden Bears rookie into 26 saves, Torchia ended the afternoon with 20 saves.
With the win, the Golden Bears advance to the U CUP semifinal, facing one of the host UPEI Panthers or Calgary Dinos and will continue their search for their first U SPORTS title since 2018.
“There’s a lot of guys still here from last year’s team that are a little pissed off about the way the outcome went,” Herbers said. “So that’s in the back of their mind, and they know its a tough tournament.”
Windsor growing with young group at U SPORTS
Although the Lancers’ season ended in an unfortunate fashion, they can look across the ice at the Golden Bears to see what heartbreak can do for a team. In the OUA Final, Windsor fell 3-2 in triple overtime to UQTR and didn’t advance at nationals, yet that experience for a group only graduating four players will be invaluable.
“We played a team that had 18 returning players from the final team last season that lost to UQTR, and I think the experience at this level means a lot,” Hamlin said. “I’ll tell you that I couldn’t be more proud of a group. Our team has battled all year long and not many people picked us as the team to look for this year.”
The Lancers were one of the most consistent and deep teams in the OUA West, riding atop the conference for much of the season, ahead of last year’s Ontario U CUP top performers, TMU, and only finishing behind the Lakehead Thunderwolves, on a late-season tiebreaker.
“We’re a resilient team to make it to the national stage here, it took all 25 guys, some guys not playing tonight,” said Lancer forward Mason Kohn. “We have a young team… the expereince this year, we got to the Queen’s Cup this year, runner-up in the OUA, it’s a tough conference.”
While many of the metrics sit just above the average in U SPORTS, there are signs the team is developing with a young group. They finished with 3.4 goals per game in the OUA, good for 15th in Canada, while their penalty kill was generally strong at 88%, sixth best in U SPORTS.
At the same time as their team results, Tochia put up a .936 save percentage to lead the OUA and made 57 saves in the Queen’s Cup Final.
“Sometimes you have to go through tough moments like this to be able to recover, regroup, and maybe come back next year with a chip on your shoulder,” Hamlin said. “I like our group, I like the path we’re on, and it’s not over for us”
Cover photo: U SPORTS
Stats provided by: HockeyTech, Presto Sports, InStat Analytics