Men’s hockey swept from playoffs in deja vu series

A gutsy three-game quarterfinal win followed by a two-game semifinal ousting at the hands of the University of Alberta Golden bears. Sound familiar? That might be because it’s the same situation the Thunderbirds found themselves in last year. The quarterfinal teams were different (Saskatchewan last year, Manitoba this time), but the overall schematic is eerily similar. The Bears are becoming to the ‘Birds what the Blackhawks were to the Canucks in ’09 and ’10.

After what looked like a convincing series victory over the Bisons in the quarterfinal, the ‘Birds were flying high. They were getting offensive input from their top guys with help from the depth (11 goals in three games is nothing to sneeze at), their defence was solid and goalie Eric Williams was playing with more confidence than he had ever shown at any point this year, allowing just one goal in two of the three matches.

Leave it to the best team in the league to send them crashing back to earth.

Alberta took the first game by a score of 3-1, holding UBC to 21 shots in the game and scoring a pair of third period goals to get past the visitors. One of those, it should be mentioned, was into an empty net, so the game was even closer than the score would suggest (mostly due to another stellar performance from Williams, who stopped 34 of the 36 shots fired at him). Jordan Hickmott tallied the lone marker for UBC -- the ‘Birds would need more offence if they were to even things up in the next game.

They’d get it. And who else but Cole Wilson and Anthony Bardaro to give the T-Birds a 2-0 lead. A lucky bounce off Wilson got the team off to a good start 2:15 into the game, and a wicked slot shot from Bardaro gave the Bears something to worry about. Alberta’s Jamie Crook pounced on a loose puck to respond with just eight seconds left in the period, but the visiting team had to feel good about a lead heading into the intermission.

Some hard-nosed play led to Luke Lockhart’s 3-1 rebound goal about halfway through the game. It would take 20 minutes for the Golden Bears to respond, but at 11:10 of the third period, Jordan Rowley scored on a powerplay one-timer to pull his team within one. This goal would spell the end of the game for Williams, who until this point had done everything he could to keep the ‘Birds in front, as he was injured on the play. Matt Hewitt, who hadn’t played since January 29, came in relief.

Five minutes later, the Bears caught up, courtesy Levko Koper. Then, with 33 seconds left, the winning goal came as Kruise Reddick put a one-timer through Hewitt. The Thunderbird goalie would head to the bench for the extra attacker in the final seconds, and Lockhart and Fleming had multiple chances in tight, but Golden Bear goaltender Luke Siemens held fast to give his team the win.

Giving up three third period goals to lose by one is a heartbreaking way to go, but credit the T-Birds for never giving up against the best team in the league. This series was much closer than last year’s (5-1, 6-2 losses), and the team played with serious heart facing slim odds. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘what ifs’ after a close playoff loss, but one can’t help but wonder what the outcome could’ve been had Williams not been taken out of the game, especially considering the way he’d been playing.

Either way, this season has been one of impressive growth for the Thunderbirds, as they finished fourth overall in the Canada West conference to earn themselves a home playoff date for the first time since 1971[link]. Their regular season improved under new head coach and longtime Thunderbird Tyler Kuntz[link], and some new additions, most notably Eric Williams, the first-year who will surely be their starting goaltender for the foreseeable future and Manraj Hayer, the speedy winger who seems to have found a home on the top line with Wilson and Bardaro -- helped them along the way.

Only forward Nate Fleming and captain D-man Ben Schmidt are in their final year of eligibility -- no doubt two big pieces of this team, but in terms of quantity lost, the T-Birds are in good shape. And with the new additions looking comfortable in blue and gold, the future is looking bright. If you’ll indulge my Canucks-Blackhawks metaphor, we’re due for a dramatic finish next March.