Men’s hockey: Thunderbirds close out Manitoba, move on to semifinals

No one in the crowd was sure which Thunderbird team would show up tonight -- would it be the one that crushed Manitoba 5-1 on opening night, or the one that looked shaky all game and blew three separate leads, finally losing in OT on Friday? Luckily for UBC and the crowd, it was the former.

The ‘Birds jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first and never looked back. Their top line of Anthony Bardaro, Cole Wilson and Manraj Hayer produced all three goals in the 3-1 victory, something not out of the ordinary since they were put together just before the winter break. The secret to their success, according to Wilson, lies in their speed.

“I play with two of the fastest guys in the league,” he said. “They can push the play and I just go to the net.”

To open the scoring, that’s just what he did, finishing off a Bardaro play to get his team on the board first -- something the ‘Birds have done each game this series.

“We’ve had a goal to get the first goal of the game, and they’ve bought into it,” said head coach Tyler Kuntz. “Now it’s just protecting the leads.”

He’s right. A constant area of concern for the Thunderbirds has been their ability to stay in front. A prime example being last night, when UBC was ahead 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, and lost by a score of 4-3. It’s a trend they can’t continue if they’re going to get past their next opponent, who will be either the University of Calgary Dinos or the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

Alberta, the defending CIS champions, have given UBC headaches this year, beating them in three of their four regular season matchups (though the ‘Birds won a preseason game as well), outscoring them 15-8 (17-12 if you include the exhibition match). They also knocked UBC out of the playoffs last year[link], adding some extra drama to what could be a very interesting series.

Calgary has been a bit easier to handle of late. The ‘Birds have a record of 2-2 against them, and the goal situation is 11-10 in favour of UBC (14-14 if you count the 4-3 exhibition loss). They also finished with a regular season record of 20-8-0, compared to Alberta’s slightly scarier 24-3-1.

Kuntz doesn’t care. “Doesn’t matter to us. We’ll play anybody. If you’re going to win nationals you’ve got to go through Alberta anyway, right? They’re the best in Canada, so I’d love to play there and test them out. Why not?”

Both the Golden Bears and the Dinos are notoriously physical teams, which the Thunderbirds are fine with, but the potential opponents will have had a couple weeks of rest before UBC comes knocking on their door, something the ‘Birds are definitely lacking.

This game, and the Manitoba series in general, has alternated between chippy and downright nasty. The ‘Birds lost Manraj Hayer halfway through tonight’s match to a clean but huge hit by Bison Jordan DePape. The trainer was out on the ice just briefly, and Hayer skated off under his own power, but his absence for the rest of the game could be a cause for concern, especially if he failed the concussion test.

“I think he’ll be fine,” said linemate Wilson. “I think he just got a little shaken up, but he’ll be ready to go next week. It’s the playoffs. Guys will play as they can.”

Things almost got way out of hand a couple minutes later, as Thunderbird Joe Antilla got in front of a Manitoba player and dragged him down, resulting in an immediate holding call. After the whistle, he was viciously charged from behind by Bison Shaquille Merasty, who somehow escaped with only a minor and a 10 minute misconduct, of which two more were handed out in the ensuing scrum, as UBC’s Nate Fleming and Manitoba’s Darren Bestland were taken off. The post-whistle activities only increased in intensity after that, and both teams were noticeably worse for wear by the end of the period.

“I don’t think anybody’s 100 per cent,” said Kuntz. "Doc Rob [Lloyd-Smith] was the star of the show tonight. He had a few freezings."

Another player perhaps not at full capacity after this series is goaltender Eric Williams. He started all three games, and kept his team in it for every one of them. He’s emerged as the clear starter after splitting crease time with Matt Hewitt during the regular season, and will definitely be relied upon to give the ‘Birds a chance in their next series. And he has just as much confidence in the team in front of him as they do in him.

“They did a great job,” he said. “It was definitely a change in the third when they started shooting everything, so our guys did a great job blocking shots…. I was seeing a lot of pucks.

“[The Bisons] were going to the net really hard and trying to get us off our game, so it just came down to staying focused on playing our game for 60 minutes…. Our guys did a good job sticking with it.”

His play tonight should’ve earned him the shutout. His bid was ruined with just five seconds to go by Bison Jory Coates as he snuck one glove side, but Williams isn’t one for the small picture.

“That kind of sucked, but a win’s a win and we’re going to move on. Whether the score was 8-7 or 1-0 I would’ve been just as happy.

“We’ve done our job, and that’s to win our series. The rest is out of our hands. We’ll come prepared next week and get the job done whoever we play.”

If Saskatchewan wins their series against Mount Royal, UBC will play Calgary this weekend. If Mount Royal takes it, the 'Birds will face Alberta. Either way, the first game of the best-of-three series will be on Friday, February 27. Time TBA.