Tuesday, February 19, 2019

UNB vs. UPEI: Preview, Prediction, Poll

The #2 nationally ranked University of New Brunswick Reds (25-2-3) open their AUS title defense on Thursday night when they host the UPEI Panthers (15-12-3, 2-0 in playoffs) in game 1 of their best 3-of-5 AUS semi-final series. Game 2 is scheduled for Friday night at the AUC before the series shifts to Charlottetown for game 3 and, if necessary, game 4 next week. All games are set for a 7PM puck drop.

This marks the 5th time the Reds and Panthers have met in a playoff series since Gardiner MacDougall became head coach. The Reds have dominated the previous four series, only dropping a single game while out-scoring UPEI 57-24 in 12 games.

2002 Quarter-Finals - UNB won 2 games to 0 (4-2, 7-4)
2012 Semi-Finals - UNB won 3 games to 0 (4-3, 5-1, 3-2 OT)
2013 Semi-Finals - UNB won 3 games to 1 (7-2, 2-4, 7-2, 5-1)
2016 Semi-Finals - UNB won 3 games to 0 (4-1, 5-2, 4-0)

UNB also had their way with the Panthers this regular season as they won all five match-ups with a 33-13 goal differential, running their regular season record to 28-3 versus UPEI over the previous seven seasons. After emerging with a tight 4-3 decision in the home opener, UNB rhymed off wins of 6-3 in Charlottetown on October 13th, 7-1 at home on November 3rd in a game that was cut short due to a power outage, 9-4 on the island on January 18th, and 7-2 at the AUC on February 2nd.

The Panthers strength is definitely their ability to put the puck in the net. They finished 3rd in the league in goals scored with 101 - including a league-high 13 against UNB - and 4th in both power play goals (29) and power play percentage (19.1%). They are led offensively by one of the most dangerous players in the conference in Kameron Kielly, who followed a stellar 42 point rookie season by finishing 3rd in the conference with 43 points (15 goals, 28 assists) this year. He had three of those goals and seven of those points against UNB. Kielly does not represent their only threat though as they had three other players crack double digits in goals scored. This included former Boston Bruins 5th round draft pick Cody Payne (t-14th in AUS with 13 goals, 15 assists), Gabe Guertler (t-17th with 11 goals, 16 assists), and Swede Filip Rydstrom (t-21st with 12 goals, 12 assists in 24 games). Rookie Owen Headrick provides offense from the back-end, contributing 22 points, which ranked 3rd among all AUS defencemen. The Panthers key offensive players will need to step up and take advantage of any chance they get. They will have their work cut out for them as UNB led the league in goals against average (1.97), shots allowed (22.0/game), and penalty killing (89.7%).

If scoring is their strength, the Panthers weakness the last few years has been their inability to keep the puck out of their own net. After allowing 136 goals last season (2nd most in the league) they worked to improve on that number in the offseason by bringing in former CHL defencemen Headrick, Doug Blaisdell, and Andrew Pico. They also brought in former Canisius College (NCAA) goaltender Simon Hofley. The additions helped - slightly - as the Panthers improved to 123 goals allowed, but they did slip to last in the league in this category. They also ranked last in save percentage (0.878) and second to last in penalty killing (74.6%), which might spell trouble against a Reds team that led the league in goals scored (5.00/game), shooting percentage (11.6%), shots on goal (43.2), and were 2nd in power play percentage (25.3%).

However, having said this, the Panthers showed how good they can be when they play sound defense and get good goaltending, as they did in their first round series sweep versus Moncton. Although Hofley got the majority of the starts in net during the regular season (23 out of 30), the Panthers turned to back-up Matthew Mancina for the playoffs and he responded by leading them to a 3-2 overtime win in game 1 before pitching a 29 save shutout in Moncton to eliminate the Aigles Bleus. Although neither had much success this season against the Reds, Hofley (17 goals allowed on 136 shots in 189 minutes) was significantly better than Mancina (16 goals allowed on 73 shots in 100 minutes) so it will be interesting to see what direction the Panthers coaching staff goes in. No matter who gets the start, though, they will almost certainly need to be lights out for the Panthers to have a chance in this series.

Overall, it isn't an understatement to say it would be a massive upset if the Panthers were to emerge victorious in this series as every key statistic heavily favours the Reds. Not to mention UNB has home-ice advantage - where they have beaten UPEI 16 straight times, are well rested, and that a best 3-of-5 series is less likely to produce an upset than a best 2-of-3 would. I expect the Panthers to try and make the series as physical as possible in an attempt to slow down and wear down the smaller, quicker Reds and it would not be overly shocking to see UPEI grab one game - especially on the island - but I can't see them doing much more damage than that.

PREDICTION: UNB in 4, punching their ticket to the University Cup next month in Lethbridge.

POLL: Your turn, who do you got?

UNB in 3
UNB in 4
UNB in 5