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The UBC Thunderbirds during practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre on Wednesday, February 14, 2018.

VANCOUVER, B.C – It’s the most wonderful time of the year for hockey fans, that’s right, it’s playoff time. The puck drops on the Canada West quarterfinal playoffs this weekend. It’s going to be a barn burner between the defending Canada West champion, UBC Thunderbirds and the Mount Royal Cougars. The Thunderbirds just missed out on a first round bye, and as a result they will have to tangle with a hungry Cougars team.

“There won’t be any surprises,” said UBC Coach, Graham Thomas. “We both know each other pretty well, and just saw each other out here. We can never take any team lightly, there a stingy team to get goals on. They’re well coached, hard-nosed, they never quit. There going to come at us, they’re motivated. It’s going to be a good matchup, everybody is tied for first right now.”

UBC won all four regular season games against the Cougars and most recently a pair of games to close out the Thunderbirds home schedule. Three of those games were tightly contested as one-goal victories. The Cougars can hang with the Thunderbirds, but can they come into Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre and win a playoff series?

“If the regular season is any indication it should be a fairly tight series,” said Mount Royal Coach, Scott Rivett. “We expect both teams are going to compete extremely hard, be physical and we are going to have to try and do a good job at minimizing their speed and skill throughout the series. I think both teams have strong goaltending and we suspect that will be at the forefront for both teams this weekend.”

Not only will UBC looking to pick up the pace, but they will also be looking to bust out of a scoring drought. UBC has scored just 9 goals in the previous 7 games. Getting shots on goal, finding ways to create chances, and converting will be imperative if UBC is to have any post-season success.

Thunderbirds leading-scorer, Hannah Clayton-Carroll rippled the net with 12 goals this season. She admits that she’s feeling a bit of pressure to produce when her teams needs her the most.

“Yeah a little bit,” Clayton-Carroll said honestly. “It’s more of a team effort. I kind of just tap it in, but the teams working together and getting the goal as a team. Yeah, hopefully we can do that a couple of more times.”

The USports 5th ranked Thunderbirds will need to put together a solid sixty-minute effort, and possibly overtime as well. Winning the special teams battle, staying out of the box, and firing more pucks on net will make all the difference. Creating those opportunities in the Cougars defensive zone starts with the most common strategy.

“It starts with our break-out,” revealed Coach Thomas. “If we can break-out with more speed, with closer little passes, and support coming up the ice. Also if we’re not getting hemmed in our zone  for extended periods of time. Just getting in front of the goalies eyes, we’ve got to get traffic in front of Zoe (De Beauville). Assuming she’s going to play.”

You might think that Mount Royal comes into this best of three series as the underdog, but you would be mistaken. On any given day, anyone can turn up and win. Sports isn’t played on paper, it’s not decided on a whiteboard, or from a fantasy draft.

The Cougars aren’t afraid of the back-to-back Canada West champions or the silver, and bronze medals UBC won at previous USports Nationals. Mount Royal has fought, and clawed their way into the Canada West playoffs, and they’re coming to make some noise.

“Winning in this league at any time is difficult let alone in the playoffs,” said Coach Rivett “I think the experience we gained last year finely getting the opportunity to play in the post season was huge for us and now just being here isn’t good enough. Learning how to win in Canada West at this time of the year is an important step for our program to take.”

The third-year, Vancouver native and her teammates will be ready to go on Friday afternoon. They’re out to prove that UBC is still a force to be reckoned with. The Thunderbirds and every other USports playoff team in Canada wants to win a gold medal. It all starts in the quarterfinals with a crucial series against a determined Mount Royal team.

“I think we’ve just got to be smart as a team,” Clayton-Carroll said, following practice this week. “Work together, go through our systems, know them well, and make sure that we’re ready to show up Friday, Saturday, and Sunday if needed.”

There is no better atmosphere than playoff hockey. Teams are out to show what they’ve accomplished all season. Playoff hockey separates the contenders from the pretenders,. UBC and Mount Royal are going to bring exciting, fast-paced hockey to The Doug.

 

(3) UBC Thunderbirds vs Mount Royal Cougars (6)

Friday, February 16 – 3:00 p.m. at The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

Saturday, February 17 – 3:00 p.m. at The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre

Saturday, February 18 – 1:00 p.m. at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre (If Necessary)

VANCOUVER, B.C – Please visit Red Nation Online for my Vancouver Whitecaps FC and B.C. Children’s Hospital story.

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From Left to Right: Brian Rowe, Russell Teibert, Jake Nerwinski, Colton Hasebe, Aly Ghazal, Bobby Lenarduzzi, Aaron Maund, Taylin McGill, and Kei Kamara at B.C. Children’s Hospital on Tuesday, February 13, 2018.

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UBC Thunderbirds Coach Graham Thomas (Left) looks on during practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre on Wednesday February 8, 2018.

VANCOUVER, B.C – The Alberta Pandas and UBC Thunderbirds will meet this weekend at Clare Drake Arena with a Canada West quarterfinals playoff bye up for grabs. UBC comes into the series sitting second in the conference with (18-8-0) 53 points. Alberta is third with (18-8-0) 52 points. A three-point regulation win by the Thunderbirds will clinch a bye directly to the conference semifinals. The hosts however, they will have other ideas.

UBC and Alberta split a pair of games at the end of November with both teams winning in overtime at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre. As both teams prepare to renew acquaintances, UBC Thunderbirds Coach Graham Thomas, and Alberta Pandas Coach Howie Draper, both shared their thoughts on what to expect this weekend in Edmonton.

UBC Thunderbirds fifth-year and graduating senior, Kathleen Cahoon offered her thoughts from a players perspective. A native of the ‘Wild Rose Country’, Cahoon will look to lead by example especially with family and friends in attendance.

How is your team approaching these two games this weekend? 

GT: I think the word that comes to mind is, excitement. I think we’re excited. If we aren’t, we better be. This is just a great opportunity regardless of what happens in the outcome. To have two top programs go at it, it’s neat. Most years, it kind of comes down to the last weekend every year. Whether it’s five vs six battles, or one, two, three, four battles. It’s great for our league, it shows how tight it is, how competitive it is. It’s coming right down to the last weekend. There’s a lot on the line, but we just need to focus on the excitement piece, having fun, and excepting the challenge.

HD: Our approach is the same as it has been in previous weeks. Every week we strive to be more consistent than we were the one before. We have to be more consistent through our next three practices. Hopefully, that will translate into greater consistency this weekend against UBC.

KC: I think the biggest thing is sticking to our systems, and playing a full sixty-minute game. I know we’ve struggled with coming out in our second period. I think this week’s focus, we’ve really been barring down, pushing ourselves, and focusing on the details. I think if we get that under wraps, we’ll be good to go.

Are these both must win games?

GT: As far as points go, as far as regular season goes, it is. I think we want to have that mindset that we need to win all of our games between now and mid-March, when nationals are over If we’re blessed enough to go, and earn that spot. Yeah, from now to until then, it has to be the mindset. We’ve got to make sure we’re bringing our best. For big picture, because these aren’t technically playoff games. I think it is more important that we play sixty-minutes, we compete really hard, show a lot of effort, a lot of heart this weekend, regardless of the outcome.

HD: No, I wouldn’t say that the upcoming games are must wins. We want to win them. With first place out of reach for us, our goal at this point is to finish in second. We’ll do what we can to make that happen. If it doesn’t work out that way for us, then we’ll live to fight another day.

KC:  Yeah, I think every game now, we have a playoff mentality. We’re taking everything like that. Everything is going to be a must win coming down the stretch here.

What can you take away from the two earlier games this season between the teams?

GT: If remember the second night, discipline, staying out of the box is going to be important. We lost in overtime on the penalty kill, so just making sure that we’re staying disciplined in those key, and timely situations, and just having awareness in the game of what’s happening. When we can be aggressive, and when we can’t. Those are some things that we’ve learned since then. It’s not just this matchup, all of our games have been close. We’ve learned how to play in those games, we’ve learned how to not play in those games, and I think we’ve got to make sure that’s forefront as well, those lessons that we’ve learned.

HD: That our teams are well matched. We play two different styles, but when you add up what makes each team unique each team’s ability to produce results is very comparative. Literally, either team could win on any given night. That’s what makes these kinds of series fun.

KC: I think the biggest take away is, we’re two really good teams, hard-working teams, and two teams that have a big rivalry. I think we’re just going to use that to fuel us going forward.

What does your team need to do in order to be successful and get results?

GT: I think we’ve got to shoot the puck more. We’ve got to generate more shots. They’ve always been one of the top defences. They have a really good defensive system, their fast. They’ve got good goaltending, we’ve got to make sure our offence is prepared to take on their defences. Secondly, I would say special teams. It’s not so much them, it’s us. We’ve got to be better, our power play has to be better, our penalty kill has to be better. We’ve been working on that this week. For me, we’ve got to make sure we’re generating offence, keeping the puck, and second, we have to win the special teams battle.

HD: As mentioned previously, we have to be more consistent defensively and offensively than we have been previously. We’re getting to where we need to be, but we’ve got more hill to climb. Last weekend, I felt that we had some mental lapses that hurt us. We need to continue to minimize these lapses this coming weekend. Teams like Saskatchewan and UBC, or any team in our conference for that matter, have weapons that can take advantage of mistakes. Having said that, UBC will be pushing to maximize errors on our part and they do that very well, so the goal will be to ultimately make less than they do. Hopefully, that will be enough.

Are these games a precursor of what to expect in the Canada West playoffs? 

GT: Yeah for sure. I mean you can never predict, and you never want to take anyone lightly. It’ll be playoff intensity, and it will for sure have a look of ‘hey the playoffs are here and making sure everybody is at their best’.

HD: I think this weekend series will be a very good indication of what might be seen in the playoffs. Both teams are getting close to the peak of their development. Both teams want to win one of the two top spots in regular season standings. It will have a very playoff-like feel to it.

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The UBC Thunderbirds celebrate a 2-1 win over the Mount Royal Cougars at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre on Saturday, February 3, 2018.

VANCOUVER, B.C – The UBC Thunderbirds are in the driver’s seat as they head into the final Canada West weekend. UBC heads out on the road to take on the Alberta Pandas at Clare Drake Arena in Edmonton. It’s a crucial matchup that will determine which team earns a coveted first round Canada West playoff bye.

UBC sits second with a an 18-8-0 record and 53 points. Alberta is third, also with an 18-8-0 record, but with 52 points. Saskatchewan holds down fourth spot with 52 points and a 17-9-0 record. All three teams will battle for the second, and final playoff bye. The Manitoba Bisons are on the verge of locking up first in the conference.

The main focus for UBC this week isn’t the Bisons, it’s all Panda, Panda, Panda.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a crucial series coming up”, said defender Madison Patrick. “We have to prepare, and we have to put the work in all week, to be ready to go next weekend. There’s a lot of advantages that come with finishing in the first two spots. It’s definitely important that we come out ready to go next weekend.”

No matter how the puck bounces this weekend. The top four teams have already secured a playoff spot. Playoff seeding, and not saying goodbye to the bye, is the top priority. There is a very good chance Manitoba, UBC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan will have to play each other at some point if they want to win the Canada West championship this season.

“We’re going to have to beat everybody if we’re going to want to win,” said Coach Graham Thomas. “Whether we get the bye, or we don’t get the bye, we’ve just got to make sure that we’re taking care of our game, and making sure that we’re playing at our best. Yeah, it’ll be right down to the wire.”

The Thunderbirds 2-1 win in regulation over Mount Royal University on Saturday afternoon is why they are in the position they are in. UBC’s first regulation win in four contests gave them that extra point to put them ahead of Alberta, and Saskatchewan in the standings.

It was a clutch performance, and an all around team effort when it was needed most.

“Yeah it’s really important,” said Patrick. “It’s a really tight race coming up with playoffs. It’s really important to be able to get that extra point, and win in regulation.”

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UBC Thunderbirds forward, Emily Costales (Centre) celebrates her first period goal vs Mount Royal University on Saturday, February 3, 2018.

While the scoring department has produced recent hiccups, that wasn’t the case vs Mount Royal. UBC had an early jump and quickly lead 2-0. The visitors did cut the deficit, but UBC responded by out shooting Mount Royal 17-1 in the third period. A familiar tried, true, and tested formula helped get the offence going.

“Thankfully, we’re moving the lines around,” said game winning scorer, Emily Costales, “So far it’s been good, knock on wood. Hopefully, it keeps progressing from there, and we get more chemistry throughout practices.”

Ending the home schedule on a winning note is exactly what top teams do heading into the playoffs. It’s important to develop, and help create a winning mentality. That’s one of the ways championship calibre teams separate themselves from the pack in the playoffs.

“It’s huge,” admitted Costales. “We really have to dial in right now, put the work in, grind out. Going into the playoffs, we really have to try to gain the momentum.” 

Everyone loves fun, exciting fast paced playoff hockey, and that’s just around the corner. It starts this weekend, because the intensity will have a playoff feel with UBC and Alberta vying for that coveted bye to the Canada West semifinals.

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UBC Thunderbirds, Kathleen Cahoon (Left), Alexa Ranahan (Centre), and Cassandra Vilgrain (Right), following practice on Wednesday, January 31, 2018.

VANCOUVER, B.C – The UBC Thunderbirds will close out the home portion of their Canada West schedule with seniors night on Saturday afternoon vs Mount Royal University. There won’t be any bingo, or Antiques Roadshow marathon. UBC’s Kirsten Toth, Kathleen Cahoon, Cassandra Vilgrain, and Alexa Ranahan will be honoured prior to the 2:00 p.m. puck drop at The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

The ‘Fab Four’ have meant a lot to the Thunderbirds program over the years. They’ve each given back, improved, and helped UBC become the hockey program that it is today.

“It’s been a second family,” Cahoon admitted. “It’s a home away from home. It’s kind of my escape every time I come to the rink, it’s my favourite time of the day. All the girls, and friendships that I’ve developed, they’re going to last a lifetime. It’s been a huge part of my life.”

The Calgary, Alberta native, has seen a massive transformation since committing to play for UBC. The program that was once known for losing has built a winning model that’s gained respect, and recognition. Cahoon is so much a part of the Thunderbirds identity, that she committed to the team before Coach Graham Thomas had officially signed on the dotted line to coach.

“She’s the first recruit that I recruited that’s graduating all the way through,” Thomas said, proudly. “That’s kind of neat for me and her. She was the first one to help change the program around. It was before I even saw the team, and got the job. It’s kind of sad, it brings you back to a lot of times, emotions, and memories. She’s always brought a lot of commitment, hard work, and effort. She’s been a really good leader, and a teammate. She exudes what a Thunderbird means. She’s been through a lot with this program, and she gives a lot.”

A lot of athletes don’t always feel comfortable in the first university they have decided to play for. Toth, Vilgrain, and Ranahan all transferred to UBC after previously playing hockey at other schools. Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery and a fresh start.

Vilgrain was looking to rejuvenate her passion for playing hockey. Now in her second season with UBC, she’s fit in great, and is back enjoying Canada’s favourite past-time. Being able to find a positive place to play hockey, and want to play hockey, has meant the world.

“I see it as a second chance to find my love for hockey again,” Vilgrain beamed. “That’s something that Graham, the coaches, and the girls have given to me. I got to come here, develop as a hockey player, and as a person, better than I would have in my other situation. I’m very grateful for that.”

If your players aren’t excited about coming to the rink, and stepping onto the ice, you’ve not got a succesful team. Teammates feed off of each other’s energy, and commitment. Having Vilgrain loving hockey, and thrilled to score a double overtime penalty shot winner against a heated rival, that’s when you know that you’ve helped, and it’s working out.

“Yeah, when you hear things like that,” said Thomas, upon hearing Vilgrain’s comments. “When a player comes in who is a highly touted recruit… I tried to get her at Syracuse when I was there not knowing, small world, we’d end up back here together. To see a player like that kind of lose the passion for the game, and could have just slugged it out for one more year at UNH (University of New Hampshire) and graduated, not enjoying that. I think that’s a real compliment to our program, team, and coaching staff. A player like that can come back and find her love for the game again, that’s pretty special. It’s been awesome to watch her enjoy it, and love coming to the rink again.”

Also in her second season with UBC, it’s been a similar journey for Ranahan. After transferring from The Ohio State University, Ranahan has found a home with the Thunderbirds. However, you might have been hard-pressed to find her on the ice as she’s usually in the penalty box or in the trainers room covered in ice packs.

If you’re looking for a defender that sticks up for her teammates, isn’t afraid to mix things up in the corners, block a shot, or put her own body on the line, that’s Alexa Ranahan.

“Ranahan is probably the toughest player I’ve coached, male or female,” Thomas revealed. “Last year she played through three injuries, fractured femur, a torn labrum. She’ll battle through anything, she’s so tough and plays a tough game.”

UBC’s 2017 Canada West championship, and bronze medal at USports Nationals was in part because everyone found a role and chipped in. The Thunderbirds played compact, and together as a team. Having Ranahan on the ice creates space and comfort zone for a Cahoon and Vilgrain to freelance, and generate scoring opportunities.

“My favourite moment was winning Canada West,” said Vilgrain. “It was probably the first time I’ve won anything, and also won something with a group of people that I love. Being able to do that together, meant more than the actual championship.”

“I’d have to say last year in playoffs, it was pretty exciting,” said Ranahan, when asked about her favourite moment. “We had a really good run, and we won Canada West, and that was a lot of fun.”

Everyone loves fun, and how much fun would it be for the Thunderbirds and graduating seniors to win another USports National medal, only this time, the one that’s eluded them. It would certainly end on the highest of notes, and solidify UBC as the top program.

“Finishing with a national championship is obviously the end goal,” Cahoon said. “To do it in your senior year is obviously pretty rewarding. I know that we’re on track for that, and we’re working hard.”

“Obviously it means a lot,” said Ranahan. “I think anybody wants that for their last year. I know with this group, we’ll give it our best shot.”

“Yeah, it is the last crack,” Vilgrain answered. “We want to see every single year as an opportunity to win for the program, and for future teams. We want to win of course, but we also want to make sure that we’re doing every single thing to make sure that we have no regrets at the end of the season.”

The 16-8-0 UBC Thunderbirds will be hunting cougars this weekend as they honour four outstanding seniors and try to secure a Canada West quarterfinals bye. There is a lot at stake, and plenty more to come. The next chapter is only just beginning.

UBC Thunderbirds vs Mount Royal University Cougars 

Friday, February  2 – 7:00 p.m. at The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

Saturday, February 3 – 2:00 p.m. at The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.