Monday, March 9, 2020

UNB vs. UBC: Preview, Prediction, Poll

If someone had said at the beginning of the season that the University of New Brunswick Reds would open the 2020 University Cup against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, you probably would have thought they were crazy.

But here we are.

The two teams will meet for the first time ever at 2PM on Friday afternoon in the third of four quarter-final match-ups. For the #1 ranked Reds, this is old hat of course. This will be their 12th appearance at the national tournament in the last 14 seasons with seven of those ending with a championship. But for the 8th seeded Thunderbirds, this marks their first trip to nationals in 42 years.

UBC struggled through an inconsistent regular season. They were winless through their first five games (0-3-2) and were 4-9-3 at the Christmas break. They would eventually fall to 4-11-5 before winning five out of their last eight games to finish 9-14-5, which was good enough for 5th place in the Canada West conference and a quarter-final match-up against the Mount Royal Cougars, a team that finished 15 points ahead of them in the standings. UBC would take the first game 4-2 before falling 5-3 in the second contest to send the series to a winner-take-all game three, where perhaps the turning point for the Thunderbirds season came. They held a 4-1 lead late in the 2nd period only to see the Cougars storm back to tie the game with two seconds remaining in regulation. With all of the momentum in their favour, it would not have come as any surprise if the Cougars completed the comeback. The T-Birds had other ideas though as Austin Vetterl scored 12:52 into overtime to send UBC to the Canada West semi-finals for the first time since 2007.

Waiting for them were the top ranked 23-5-0 Alberta Golden Bears, who had enjoyed a first round playoff bye. Even after the Thunderbirds shocked the Bears with a 3-2 overtime win in game one, many did not give UBC a chance at finishing the job, largely due to the fact they were out-shot 53-17 in the game. It seemed the pundits would be correct after Alberta walloped UBC 6-1 in the second game to even the series. However, the T-Birds once again had other plans and, in the process, turned the U Sports hockey world on its head. In one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, UBC stunned the Bears with a 2-1 victory, despite being out-shot 41-19, in the deciding game. The win locked up a University Cup berth and sent the Thunderbirds to the Canada West championship in search of their first conference crown since 1978.

Unfortunately, the magic ran out in Saskatoon against the #2 ranked Saskatchewan Huskies (22-4-2). Although they played the Huskies tough, UBC were swept by scores of 3-2 and 3-1.

On the season the Thunderbirds were one of the most offensively-challenged teams in the country, ranking 32nd (out of 35 teams) with only 2.57 goals per game and 26th with 30.5 shots per game. They rely heavily on their power play, which posted a respectable 21.7% success rate, good for 9th best in the nation. However, they will be in tough against a Reds team that led the country in goals against average (1.86) and shots allowed per game (20.7) and were 5th best at killing penalties (86.8%). Additionally, Samuel Harvey and Rylan Parenteau combined for a 0.910 save percentage, which ranked 10th in the nation.

Individually, UBC is led by forwards Tyler Sandhu (12 goals, 23 points), Austin Vetterl (19 points), Jake Kryski (18), and Carter Popoff (16). Jerret Smith (15) was their only defenceman to crack double digits in points. Overall, the T-Birds only had nine players notch at least ten points. By comparison, UNB had two 40 point scorers, seven 30 points scorers, and 11 20 point scorers.

Defensively, the Thunderbirds ranked 18th in the country with a 2.99 GAA and 26th with a 0.892 save percentage. They did feature an above average penalty kill, coming in at 14th overall with an 82.5 success rate and were one of the better teams at limiting shots on goal, only giving up 28 per game. Rylan Toth is their go-to-guy between the pipes as he played in 23 out of their 28 regular season games, putting up a 2.78 GAA and 0.902 save percentage in a conference-leading 1379 minutes. Of course, they will be trying to contain a UNB offense that paced the country in most categories, including goals per game (5.33), shots per game (41.7), and power play goals (47). The Reds also placed second in power play percentage (30.5%) and shorthanded goals (8), proving that you can't take a break against their line-up, even when you are up a man.

PREDICTION: Any team that goes into Clare Drake Arena in Edmonton and knocks off the Golden Bears deserves to be taken seriously. Rylan Toth showed that he can steal a series, let alone a single game - and the T-Birds played two close games against a very good Saskatchewan team in the CW Final - so nothing is guaranteed. Having said that, he will likely need to turn in another all-world performance to give the Thunderbirds a chance in this game. I know we seem to say this every year, but the Reds depth and skill will prove to be too much over 60 minutes for an inexperienced UBC squad. Ultimately, while Toth and the T-Birds keep it close for awhile, UNB pulls away for a comfortable victory to move on to semi-final Saturday.

POLL: Who do you got?

Who wins?

UNB in a close one (1 or 2 goals)
UNB in a blowout (3+ goals)
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