CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – Matt Brassard hadn’t played a game with the UPEI Panthers in 48 days. The Panthers hadn’t competed for 25. Yet, at the U SPORTS U CUP, it all proved worth it.
On Friday night, amid the roars of a sold-out Eastlink Centre, they stunned and came out with vigour and energy not dissimilar to the crowd surrounding them. From their first strides, they were a step faster, they hit a little bit harder, and had a bit more whip in their shots.
Seeded eighth coming into the U CUP, and failing to qualify through the AUS Playoffs, the Panthers defeated the top-ranked Calgary Dinos 4-2 in front of a capacity home crowd of well-hydrated students and fans.
For the Panthers, it was a watershed game – a proving point that the last 25 days weren’t a waste and a historical marker in PEI’s university hockey history. Meanwhile, for the Dinos, it was an end to a season which featured a 23-game win streak.
“Coming into the game, we weren’t sure what to expect with the fans,” said Panthers forward Kaleb Pearson, “It’s been amazing crowds throughout the tournament, even for the on home teams, they’re doing a great job… it’s good, and it’s a good atmosphere.”
The Panthers’ win is their first at the U SPORTS National Champioship since 1987, and was the first time they’d scored four times in a game at the tournament. While they’d had success in the past, Friday night was diffferent.
As the team saulted the Islander crowd amid cheers to them and jeers to Calgary, they proved that the plan put ahead of them in the moments folowing their first round AUS Playofff loss to the Moncton Aigles Bleus had worked.
Head coach Forbes MacPherson gave his group two days off following the loss, giving them time to regroup, and refocus ahead of the U CUP. Even though the team loved coming to the rink, the short break paid dividends.
“We put a plan together during those two days as a staff but but it changed all the time we we continued to kind of get injuries during practice,” MacPherson told 49 Sports. “We were adjusting that plan all the time. But we did have an original plan and it was really key for like the last the last seven to 10 days.”
As well, the team had to shift to several arenas around the Island due to the Canada Winter Games taking over their home rink and the Easlink Centre for two weeks in February. It wasn’t easy for the Panrthers, but the adjustments proved invaluable.
Throughout the break, the Panthers didn’t just focus on regrouping, but maintaining their fitness as well, knowing the slightest off factor could prove costly against their eventual opponents.
“Forbsey bagged us,” Pearson said. “Just plain and simple, we all have a main goal and we want to win, we knew we had to come into the best shape as we could.”
Everything was planned to a tee. Not a stone left unturned, and it culminated in a complete performance against a Dinos team that had proven to be the most consissent in the country this season.
Going toe-to-toe with the Dinos from puckdrop, the Panthers found a little St. Patrick’s Day luck on their first goal, with Drake Pilon firing a short angle shot just over Calgary goaltender, which after review was judged to have just barely snuck under the bar.
From then, there was no looking back, with Andrew Picco, Pearson and Troy Lajeunesse scoring to offset Calgary’s pair.
“We thought that perhaps that they they never saw a forecheck like ours yet. We feel like we’re a very aggressive team, and we’re playing well,” MacPherson said of his often injury-laden Panthers. “One of our mottos kind of, you know, safe is death, and we went after them hard and tried to give them all they could handle.”
U SPORTS return for Brassard proves critical
Friday’s victory proved the Panthers’ depth and fitness – except for defenceman Matt Brassard, it was a moment that also proved just how important he is to the group. While he doesn’t wear a letter, the third year blueliner and former NHL Draft pick has become a critical leader in UPEI’s locker room, especially since the graduating of more senior players, particularly Owen Headrick.
“He plays a lot of minutes he’s big personality in the dressing room,” MacPherson said of the Barrie, Ont. native. “He used to follow in Headrick’s footsteps a little bit,… when Headick left and kind of passed the torch the [Brassard] and he’s seamlessly taking it over so very happy for him this year.”
That year hit a hiccup when he picked up an injury in January after returning from winning gold with Team Canada at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World Universty Games. However, as he came off the ice shouting in celebration, it was clear how important he is to the group.
“To step into the pace of the game tonight, he did a great job,” MacPherson said. “he’s a leader guys look to him for that.”
Riding a wave of momentum, in the wake of the win over Calgary, the Panthers approach their most important game in program history on Saturday night, a meeting with the Alberta Golden Bears.
While the win against Calgary is monumentous, Saturday presents a golden opportunity for the program, one that, given their intensity and attention to details on Friday, suddesnly seems far less than any day dream.