CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – On St. Patrick’s Day, there was no way the team dressed in green could lose — even if they hadn’t won a game at the university national championship tournament in 1987.
Against the top-ranked team in the country, the UPEI Panthers pulled off the improbable in front of their home fans in Charlottetown. With two goals each late in the first period and early in the third, the 2023 U SPORTS Men’s Hockey Championship hosts shocked the Calgary Dinos with a 4-2 victory.
The win made history; it was the first time they’d won at this level in nearly 40 years. Before this year’s tournament, they haven’t even appeared in nationals since 1991.
Against a Calgary team known for their speed and durable game, the Panthers only allowed the pre-tournament favourites to attack in spurts.
“They never saw a forecheck like ours yet,” said UPEI head coach Forbie MacPherson post-game. With a mix of emotion and proud exhaustion, he hugged and shook hands with several as soon as the final buzzer went — continuing until the media availability.
“One of our mottos is ‘Safe is death.’ We went after them hard and tried to give them all they could handle.”
The win is even more impressive considering UPEI hasn’t seen game action in nearly a month when they lost to the Moncton Aigles Bleus in the AUS quarterfinals. But the Panthers denied Calgary’s groove over and over again on Friday night — sealing one of the most significant wins in franchise history in front of a packed Eastlink Centre.
That near-month-long break was everything but for the hosts.
“We all have a main goal: we want to win. We knew we had to come in as best shape as we could,” UPEI’s Kaleb Pearson said, adding coach MacPherson “bagged” the team on the fitness side of things through the past month.
Pearson scored what would eventually be the winning goal on a burst of speed through the Calgary defence in the third period — perhaps thanks to those extra reps from his coach.
“I haven’t scored in a while,” the second-year forward laughed. He last found the back of the net on Feb. 10 against another U CUP semifinal team: the UNB Reds. “But all I’m really worried about is the boys winning.”
Neither team started the game spectacularly. Calgary sat back the first few minutes before trying to fire up the offence with quick dump-and-chases. But UPEI relied on trapping the Dinos off the dump just inside the blue line, throwing a ton of hits the way of the Canada West champions. The hosts held Calgary to just a shot in the game’s first 10 minutes.
The Panthers’ patience paid off. After drawing a double minor off a Calgary high stick, UPEI set up strongly. Matt Brassard — whose services were missed in the AUS playoffs — set up Drake Pilon without a penalty killer within a mile. He made Calgary’s lagging defenders pay, wiring a bullet as high into the net as he could. The referees had to review the shot but despite it hitting the post, the puck crossed the line for UPEI’s first of the game.
That momentum kept up through to the end of the frame. A minute before the buzzer, Kyle Maksimovich — who assisted on the first goal — delivered again. He found fifth-year Panthers blueliner Andrew Picco. Not known as a scorer, he blasted a long-range clapper past a disoriented Carl Tetachuk in net. With his first U SPORTS goal since October 2021, the home team was bumping after 20 with a two-goal lead.
“The key to any team this time of year is balance and getting production throughout the lineup,” said MacPherson of his contributions from players across the lineup — whether it was from his dynamite top line or a defenceman with two goals in 80 career U SPORTS games.
“We were fortunate to get that tonight. Hopefully, we can do it tomorrow.”
UPEI kept it coming in the second period’s first half. If not for a couple more Tetachuk saves, the score could have extended way beyond the 2-0 Panthers lead. The shots by the period’s midway point were 18-4 for the hosts.
But right around then, the Panthers headed to the box for the first time in the game. The Dinos’ potent power play — 25.6 per cent in the regular season — needed to do something. And they did; specifically, Bradley Schoonbaert did. Up to that point, Calgary couldn’t generate top-notch chances in the middle of the slot. But on a nifty toe-drag dangle, Schoonbaert took it himself to the middle hash marks and snapped it low on Jonah Capriotti for Calgary’s first goal.
From there, Calgary was much more hungry for pucks in the offensive end. Tempting UPEI into two more penalties, the Dinos came close to tying it — once on a three-on-one rush, then a slot shot from a similar spot to the first goal. But Capriotti and his defenders said no, fighting off the period’s remaining minutes to lead 2-1 at the break.
Calgary had a good opening shift of the third period, but that evaporated instantly as Pearson broke through two Dinos d-men. He went to the backhand to rapidly sneak it under Tetachuk, blowing the top off the arena and restoring the two-goal UPEI lead.
“I just tried to get my jets going as fast as I could and I made a move. Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to go in,” said the goal scorer.
The top line chipped in six minutes later — TJ Shea outwaited three Calgary back checkers and fed captain Troy Lajeunesse for a tap-in, all but sealing the deal in front of a near-sold-out Eastlink Centre.
“This school reminds me a lot of home,” Pearson said of the home crowd, packed with fans donning the green-and-white (and not just because the calendar read March 17). “We’ve been looking forward to [nationals] for a while and it’s just great to see how good it is. It’s unreal.”
MacPherson said it was an “exceptional night” not only for the team, but UPEI athletics and the university. He cited the UPEI men’s basketball team’s success at last week’s U SPORTS Final 8 Men’s Basketball Championship (where they lost by just one point to the country’s top-seeded team) as another example of big steps the program has had recently.
“Our fans paid us back tonight.”
The eighth-seeded Panthers will be back at the same time tomorrow, playing the late semifinal against the Alberta Golden Bears at 7 p.m. local time. Whoever wins that game will take the winner of the UQTR Patriotes-UNB semifinal for the national title on Sunday night.
COVER PHOTO: U SPORTS