Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – They’re at it again.
The Alberta Golden Bears and Saskatchewan Huskies, who have combined to win 21 straight Canada West titles and gone head-to-head in the last two championship series, each winning once, arrive at the midpoint of the 2017-18 season fighting for top spot in the conference.
Meanwhile, several other teams are jockeying for position amid the pack, where a good or bad weekend can produce a significant shift in their standing.
After wrapping up the first half on Dec. 2, the teams are taking a well-deserved break before returning to the ice Jan. 5 when they will begin the stretch drive to the post-season.
Here’s a look at each of the eight teams thus far:
1. Alberta Golden Bears (15-1-0-0, 30 points)
The only blemish on the U of A’s record in the first half is a 4-0 loss to the Huskies in Saskatoon on Nov. 18. Otherwise the Bears have been more or less unstoppable; Alberta leads Canada West by a wide margin in both goals scored (74) and fewest allowed (27), and 10 of the team’s 15 wins have come by at least three goals.
Splitting duties between the pipes with markedly similar stats, the dynamic netminding duo of Zach Sawchenko (9-1, 1.60 GAA, .933 SV%) and Brendan Burke (6-0, 1.68, .933) have partnered with a stout defense to make Alberta the only team in all of U SPORTS, allowing less than 2 goals against per game in regular season action.
Likewise, the Bears share offensive responsibilities, with eight players having lit the lamp at least five times, led by Jamie Crooks, who ranks first in Canada West in both goals (11) and game-winners (4).
Bears blueliner Jason Fram is the conference’s top scoring rearguard with five goals and 15 points.
2. Saskatchewan Huskies (13-2-1-0, 27 points)
With five consecutive wins to conclude the first half, Saskatchewan enters the break as the hottest team in Canada West men’s hockey. The Huskies have proven a gritty bunch, going 6-0-1 in one-goal games and picking up a conference-best 13 points in road games (6-1-1-0).
Their plus-28 goal differential places the Huskies among the top teams in the country, and behind only Alberta in Canada West. The Huskies throw a ton of rubber at opponents, leading the conference with nearly 600 shots on goal, and Josh Roach, a senior forward from Saskatoon, is first in Canada West with 26 points, and leads the Huskies in both goals (9) and assists (17).
Saskatchewan goalie Jordan Cooke is second in U SPORTS and first in Canada West with 11 wins. The veteran netminder had a busy first half, logging just under 800 minutes between the pipes while taking only three games off.
3. Manitoba Bisons (9-5-2-0, 20 points)
The surging Bisons are one team that might not be so happy to be getting a break. With points in nine of their last 10 games (7-1-2-0), Manitoba is soaring up the standings, and took over third place on the final weekend of the first half when the Bisons swept UBC with a pair of dominating wins in Vancouver.
For the season, Manitoba is breaking even with 55 goals for and 55 against, but the Biisons boast a plus-12 goal-differential over the last 10 games. A number of Manitoba skaters rank near the very top of the Canada West leaderboards, from Kamerin Nault, who is second in goals (10) and game-winners (three), to Zach Franko (second with 57 shots on goal) to Adam Henry, whose 14 points place him second among defencemen. Meanwhile, former Edmonton Oil Kings star Michael St. Croix tops all Bisons with 19 points (6 goals, 13 helpers) through 16 contests.
Can the Bisons keep up their hot streak? They will be put to the test when they return from the break with four games against the best in the West, hosting Alberta on Jan. 5 and 6 before heading to Saskatchewan to tangle with the Huskies the following weekend.
4. Calgary Dinos (7-5-3-1, 18 points)
The Dinos are a few bounces away from being right smack dab in the mix for the top spot. Calgary has been involved in eight one-goal games, but have won just one of them, and have dropped all four of their contests that have gone beyond 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, five of their seven wins have come by at least three goals, including four by four or more. They’ve picked up more points on the road 4-2-2-0) than in the familiar confines of Father David Bauer Arena (3-2-1-1).
Calgary is killing penalties at an 84.8% rate and has scored an incredible five shorthanded goals, tops among Canada West teams and second-most in U SPORTS, with five different players having already scored for the U of C with their team down a man.
Cam Franson leads Calgary with 7 goals and 14 points, one point more than teammate Chris Collins, who has a team-best eight helpers. In the crease for Calgary, Jordan Papirny has gone 4-0-2 with a 1.81 GAA and .932 SV%, while Matthew Greenfield is 3-5-1-1 with a 2.6.2 GAA and .916 SV%.
5. Mount Royal Cougars (6-9-0-1, 13 points)
MRU had the unenviable task of facing off against conference leaders Alberta and Saskatchewan over back-to-back weekends to wrap up the first half, and while the Cougars proved competitive against the Bears and Huskies, they came away without a point from the four games as they dipped to fifth place in the standings after posting a better-than-average record (6-5-0-1) through their first dozen outings.
Special teams have been a gift and a curse for the Cougars; Mount Royal has been effective with the man-advantage (converting 19.1% of opportunities), most particularly on the road (22.6%, second in Canada West), but the PK has been a different story.
MRU has allowed 20 power-play goals and is killing off just 71.8% of penalties, which ranks fourth-worst in all of U SPORTS. The Cougars have, however, scored short-handed four times.
Fresh from the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, first-year forward Brad Kennedy has already established himself as a force in Canada West, ranking second overall with 10 goals, including a conference-leading seven on the power-play, and second among rookies with 14 points. Cam Lanigan has become the No. 1 metminder for MRU, starting the team’s last eight games over which time the veteran goalie has gone 3-5 while allowing 2.63 goals against per game and recording a .910 save percentage.
6. Lethbridge Pronghorns (6-9-1-0, 13 points)
After going seven straight without a point and losing eight straight games from mid-October to mid-November, the Pronghorns rallied to win five of six games before the schedule break as they mounted an ascent up the standings.
Lethbridge has shown a flair for the dramatic, going 4-1 after regulation, with three of the Pronghorns overtime wins coming in the last three weeks. Beyond that, Lethbridge’s games have been decidedly lopsided affairs, with 10 of 16 decided by three or more goals.
To no surprise, veteran Mitchell Maxwell leads Lethbridge’s offence, and is Canada West’s third highest point producer, with 21 points (7G-14A) in 16 games. Connor Savido has stepped up with four goals in the last four games, while goaltender Garret Hughson has gone 5-1 since mid-November to help propel the Pronghorns’ push.
7. British Columbia Thunderbirds (5-10-1-0, 11 points)
Some time to regroup might be what’s best for the T-Birds, who started the season 5-3, but have since dropped eight straight, with their last seven losses coming in regulation.
Among the bright spots for UBC are a four-game win streak at the end of October, and a strong showing in a 4-3 overtime loss at Saskatchewan on Nov. 10, coming from behind on three occasions to force OT against the powerhouse Huskies. The T-Birds also have the highest-rated power-play in Canada West, having scored 14 times in 65 chances, for a 21.5 success rate. Penalty-killing, on the other hand, has been a trouble-spot for UBC, which has found itself down a man 83 times – most among Canada West teams – and has subsequently allowed a CW high 22 short-handed goals.
Austin Vetterl has led the way offensively for UBC, scoring eight times to go with six assists, while newcomer Tyler Sandhu is among Canada West’s most productive rookies with five goals and eight helpers. UBC’s Jarrett Smith sits second among defenceman in the conference with 10 assists.
8. Regina Cougars (3-11-1-1, 8 points)
Though its record may suggest otherwise, the U of R’s men’s hockey team has hardly been a pushover and has shown ample progress since opening the season with 8-0 and 6-2 defeats at the hands of Saskatchewan. As much was evident in Regina’s two latest games, a pair of narrow two-goal losses to the same Huskies squad. In fact, five of the nine regulation time losses they’ve had since those opening weekend blowouts have come by just one goal, including a home date against first-place Alberta.
Rookie Zak Zborosky has exploded on the university hockey scene with his hometown team, leading the Cougars with nine goals, 11 assists and 20 points, in 15 games. The former WHL winger, who has six multi-point games, also paces Canada West first-year players in assists and points and has figured in nearly half of Regina’s goals.
The Cougars have primarily struggled at their own end of the ice, with the highest totals in Canada West and among the most in U SPORTS for goals allowed (73) and shots against (599). With a conference-high 14 games played between the pipes, goalie Michael Herringer has spent the last three months often under siege, and is giving up nearly five goals per game.