Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the University of Manitoba Bisons were neck and neck with the University of Alberta Pandas. With one final series to decide who would take second place behind the powerhouse UBC Thunderbirds, the team fought hard but dropped the series in a two-game sweep, falling to third in Canada West and drawing the Mount Royal Cougars in the first round.
With a playoff spot locked and a matchup set, the path to a potential championship is becoming clearer and clearer. This group of Bisons, under the watchful eye of head coach Jon Rempel, has put up a stellar record, often bowling over opponents on their way to a third place finish. Expectations are as high as ever for the herd, which looks like a championship-caliber squad every time they hit the ice.
Keys to success: firepower, goaltending, special teams and versatility
Numerous times throughout the season, the Bisons were without key contributors. Alanna Sharman, who recently pulled on the red and white for her country, missed a large stretch before the holiday break with a knee injury. Likewise, Venla Hovi, who is second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 15 assists, missed some time.
These injuries did not slow down a Bisons team that boasts enviable depth. The emergence of Lauryn Keen was a factor. Keen finished the regular season with nine goals and 25 assists, and was first amongst all players in Canada West, blowing by her career-high of 18 points set back during the 2014-15 season.
Not only does the team have the firepower that let them blow teams like the Calgary Dinos – who the Bisons outscored 12-3 on the year – and the Lethbridge Pronghorns – outscoring them 18-2 – out of the water, but they have an all-star in goal with Rachel Dyck. Dyck finished the year with a 1.51 goals against average and .931 save percentage, placing first amongst Canada West goaltenders in wins.
Special teams have also been a point of pride for the herd, as they have consistently ranked near or at the top in both power play and penalty kill percentages. The team moves the puck exceptionally well with the man advantage, often taking teams down with crisp cross-ice passes or using open points to power in goals. When down to four skaters the team has likewise had major success, playing their system to almost perfection, helped out by the stellar play of Dyck throughout the year.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this Bisons squad is their ability to adapt to different games. Whether they’re banging bodies with teams like the Saskatchewan or facing offensive powerhouses like Alberta, the team has consistently shown that they can play many different types of games when called upon. However they tend to play best when they are under the structure imposed by Rempel and the rest of the coaching staff, moving the puck well and crashing the net.
If the Bisons continue to show this structure, while getting depth scoring and more stellar play in goal, they will have no problem making noise in the Canada West playoffs.
Biggest roadblock: the Thunderbirds
There is no bigger threat to the success of a deep run in the playoffs for Manitoba than the UBC Thunderbirds.
The trap teams often fall into when playing UBC seems to be their greatest strength: their ability to build off momentum. Teams consistently fall behind in games against the Thunderbirds, and then get buried by their strong system. You need not look further into the season results than the 6-1 drumming of the Calgary Dinos and a 4-3 win against the Bisons that turned into a track meet.
Teams will either get buried, or face a tough slog against an experienced and strong defensive club.
Thankfully for the Bisons faithful, the team has already found out how to silence the Thunderbirds potent offence. In the last series between the two teams, Manitoba in fact outscored the Thunderbirds by a combined 5-4 in the series split. The first of these games was a 2-0 shutout win where the Bisons were able to weather the storm, shutting down the Thunderbirds with tight checking, riding a brilliant performance by Dyck and their special teams to victory.
The following game was the aforementioned 4-3 track meet where the Bisons were playing from behind for most of the game and couldn’t keep up with the UBC attack. If the Bisons are able to lock down and grind out an early lead against the Thunderbirds, they have a strong chance to take control of a seemingly eventual playoff showdown.
Round one: the Cougars
The Bisons will play in the quarterfinal next weekend. Because of their losses to Alberta they will not receive a first round bye. Instead of enjoying a bye, the Bisons will play a best-of-3 series against the Mount Royal Cougars in front of a home crowd.
This matchup is quite favorable for the Bisons, as they won the season series against the Cougars three games to one, outscoring them 11-6 over that stretch. Bison netminder Dyck may be the happiest member of the team, as she recorded two of her league-leading five shutouts against the Cougars this year.
For this series the Bisons should aim to capitalize on the disciplinary issues Mount Royal has had against them this season. Across all four games the Cougars were handed 16 penalties, giving the Bisons six power play goals. On the flip side, Mount Royal netted one power play goal across 11 chances.
Should Rempel and his coaching staff stick to the plan and turn to their star goalie, the rest of the team should have no problem burying Mount Royal with a balanced attack and power play supremacy.