Matt Hewitt has two shutouts in his last three starts, and they couldn’t come at a better time.
Reminiscent of a 2012 Jonathan Quick, Hewitt stood on his head at times and was terrifyingly well-positioned at others, giving his team the lifeline support they needed to take a valuable 1-0 win over the University of Regina Cougars.
“The first one was a monkey off my back,” said Hewitt. “Tonight we played a desperate team trying to make a push for the playoffs, and they pushed hard. I just tried to hold my ground and just give my team a chance to win.
“[After a game] you feel a bit sore, but after a shutout, the pain goes away.”
At 12-9-5, UBC now sits in fourth place in the Canada West conference, which is good enough to give them a home playoff date in the quarterfinals. They’re just one point above the University of Manitoba Bisons (14-12-0) though, and both teams have two games left to play. Fortunately, the T-Birds will face off against the struggling Lethbridge Pronghorns (4-22-0), while the Bisons are slotted to take on the more formidable Mount Royal Cougars (16-9-1).
The game Saturday night was a tense one -- more exciting than its low score might indicate. For all the talk about Matt Hewitt, Regina starter Lucas Gore was the busier of the two for a good chunk of the night; the shots ended up 12-4 in the home team’s favour at the end of the opening frame, and many of those were solid chances.
From the opening faceoff the game was physical. UBC captain Ben Schmidt set the tone early with two thunderous hits in the offensive zone, something the players on both sides must have been comfortable with, because the physicality didn’t slow down.
The Thunderbirds showed their team identity of grit and toughness with a touch of finesse: chances were either fired from any angle, or a sweet passing play that ended up as a blitz on the crease. The latter drew the ire of the Cougars many times during the evening, perhaps rightfully so. Gore’s night, though filled with brilliant saves, was not made easy by UBC.
Jam plays were a dime a dozen to begin the middle frame. Gore was seemingly unsolvable, until a few minutes in: Brendon Wall flew down the left wing into the offensive zone -- he remained in control of the puck past the goal line and had everyone following him, which made his cross-slot pass to Nick Buonassisi so much sweeter. Buonassisi was looking at a gaping cage and made no mistake, burying the winning and only goal of the game.
After this point was when the game really opened up. Chances came at both ends, but neither netminder would concede an inch. Both teams took the puck directly into the blue paint whenever the chance was available, continuing the trend of post-whistle scrums. The ice began to tilt in Regina’s favour once the halfway mark passed -- Hewitt came up big a few times, but none larger than a monstrous lateral pad save with four minutes to go in the second, drawing cheers from the crowd of 420 at the Doug.
The best chances of the final period came around the eight-minute mark when Thunderbird Greg Fraser was sprung on a shorthanded breakaway. He had Gore down and out with a backhand deke, but rifled it over the net. On the very next play, Joe Antilla darted between the Cougar defenders on his own break. He was hooked from behind though, and was awarded a penalty shot. Gore would have none of his dangles, however, and swatted the puck off his stick when he tried to finesse it five-hole.
“I kept it low. I should’ve looked high, put it upstairs or something,” said Antilla, brainstorming for next time. “Guys like me need to put the puck in the net when we have the opportunity late in the game.”
The defence would take over after the attempt, as UBC tightened up its back end considerably and left Regina nothing. Of course, Hewitt made the men in front of him look good, picking up anything that slipped through the cracks. He’s confident about his play heading into the postseason.
“This is a good time to pick it up and feel good about myself,” he said. “Throughout the season you have lots of ups and downs, and now I think our team in general is feeling up. We just have to keep building up towards the playoffs, so when [they] come, we can keep rolling.”