Sunday, March 17, 2019

UNB vs. Alberta: Preview, Prediction, Poll

The University Cup will be on the line tonight when the sport's two powerhouse programs - the University of New Brunswick Reds and the Alberta Golden Bears - clash in the gold medal game at the ENMAX Centre in Lethbridge. The game is scheduled for a 9PM AST start and will be broadcast live nationally on Sportsnet 360.

For the Golden Bears (30-4-1), they will be looking to defend their title they won at the Aitken Centre last season. For UNB (32-2-3), they are going for a 3rd championship in four years.

It was a another typically great year for the Golden Bears this season. Although they finished a point behind the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Canada West standings with a 24-3-1 record, the Bears would ultimately get the last laugh. After earning a first round playoff bye, the Bears swept a good Calgary Dinos squad 3-1 and 6-3 to move on to the final against the Huskies in Saskatoon. Alberta dropped the first game 4-2, but then pitched back to back shutouts - 3-0 and 1-0 - to capture their 28th Canada West title. This allowed the Bears to enter the University Cup as the top seed and earned them a date against the severely over-matched Lethbridge Pronghorns in the quarter-finals. Alberta, as predicted, had little trouble in a 7-1 rout of Lethbridge to set up another game against their rivals from Saskatchewan. In the semi-finals Alberta scored three third period goals to break a scoreless tie and Zach Sawchenko did the rest, blanking the Huskies for a third consecutive must-win game to send the Bears to the finals against UNB.

As one could imagine, Alberta has sparkling numbers across the board this season. They ranked only behind UNB in the country in goals scored per game (4.78 to 5.00 for UNB) and had just a tick better goals against average as the Reds (1.964 vs 1.966), which was only behind Saskatchewan. The Bears also feature a lethal power play, which clicks 29.2% of the time, and a stifling penalty kill (89.8%).

Individually, the Bears are the only team in the country that can match up with UNB's depth. They are led up front by U Sports player of the year Luke Philp (21 goals, 24 assists in 24 games), but also receive significant contributions from Canada West second team all-star Cole Sanford (39 points), Brandon Magee (28 points in 22 games), Trevor Cox (28 points), captain and Canada West second team all-star Riley Kieser (24 points), Canada West rookie of the year and all-rookie team member Grayson Pawlenchuk (22 points), and Steven Owre (22 points).

On defence, Alberta might not have the same offensive ability the Reds have from 1 through 6, but they feature Jason Fram (30 points), who has been named the U Sports defenceman of the year for the past two seasons. Clayton Kirichenko (20 points) and veteran Graeme Craig (16 points) are their only other rearguards that topped double digits in points this season. By comparison, UNB had four defenceman register at least 18 points.

Between the pipes, Canada West second team all-star Zach Sawchenko has taken the reigns as their go-to guy this season and has proven to be one of the best in the country. Following up on a strong University Cup semi-final and final performance last season, Sawchenko put together a regular season that saw him post a 16-2-1 record with a 0.926 save percentage and an absurd 1.46 goals against average. He was equally as good in the playoffs with a 4-1 record, 0.927 save percentage, and 1.61 goals against average - including back to back shutouts in do-or-die games in the final. Incredibly, he has been even better in the University Cup - 2 wins and one goal allowed on 46 shots.

On paper this is probably about as even as a championship game match-up can get. These two are easily the top two teams in the country this year and it would be shocking if it wasn't a tight game. Unlike in 2015 when a veteran Golden Bears team completely stifled a young Reds squad that had many players playing in their first University Cup, this game appears to feature the two teams at the height of their powers.

However, the Bears do have a few slight advantages:

- The biggest being that they opened the tournament on Thursday and had Friday off while UNB will be playing their 3rd game in three days, something they have yet to do this season.

- Secondly, as the top seed Alberta will be the home team and get the last line change.

- Also, although the Reds have a lot of players with University Cup experience, the Bears will have more players with championship game experience. Alberta will most likely only have two guys in the line-up that have not played in a University Cup final - rookies Grayson Pawlenchuk and Curtis Miske. On the other hand, the Reds could have up to ten such players - Alex Dubeau, Tyler Boland, Kris Bennett, Alexandre Goulet, Mark Rassell, Matthew Boucher, Samuel Dove-McFalls, Olivier LeBlanc, Tristan Pomerleau, and Joe Gatenby. It might not matter, but it could prove to make a difference.

Ultimately, as with most games that are expected to be close, it will probably come down to special teams, goaltending, and perhaps a fortunate (or unfortunate) bounce. The Bears have been on a roll since the early part of the regular season, going 26-1-1 in their last 28 games, but the Reds were on a similar streak in 2008 before Alberta got them in the final. The Bears are due for a loss and UNB is due to beat them in a National Championship game. The Reds take this one in a nail-biter.

Your turn: Who do you got?

Who wins gold?