It is no secret that the University of Manitoba men’s hockey program has been eagerly awaiting the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
Last season ended after a disappointing first round exit at the hands of the Mount Royal University Cougars. The Bisons finished with a 14-12-2 record, finishing fifth in the Canada West and earning a 10th straight post-season appearance.
After losing 6-1 in game one of the best of three series to Mount Royal, the Bisons rebounded with a 3-2 victory the next night to tie the quarter-final matchup at one game apiece. In game three, the offence of the Cougars proved to be too much for the herd to handle, who lost 7-1 to end their season.
But that was last season and the Bisons have been busy this fall.
Manitoba took their show on the road and across the pond this August – playing four games in Europe. The Bisons took on the Belfast Giants in a pair of games at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Ireland. Manitoba took game one 6-4 but dropped the latter of the two-game set 7-6 in overtime. To conclude the 2017 European tour, the Bisons picked up victories versus the Edinburgh Capitals and Braehead Clan 2-1 and 7-1, respectively.
Upon returning home from their European invasion, the herd travelled west to Regina for the University of Regina Cougars pre-season tournament. On Sept. 16, the Bisons took on the University of Calgary Dinos, losing 6-5 after dropping a game the previous night at the hands of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, 5-2.
The Huskies were the class of Canada West last season, finishing first place with a record of 21-5- 2 and falling one game short of capturing a national championship. To the Bisons’ credit, they handed the Huskies two of their losses last season.
“I believe we’re right there. Look at our results in the second half, we beat both Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as some of the other top teams,” said Bison head coach Mike Sirant.
“This year we’re going to have a more experienced team. I know our guys are very motivated based on the success from the second half of last season. What’s real important is that we have the confidence and belief that we can win.”
Sirant is heading into his 21st season at the helm of the men’s hockey program. Sirant has recruited a crop of new players that will look to contribute in their freshman season including, Victor Sharonov, Michael St. Croix, Geordie Keane, and Lucas Skrumeda. After two of their top four point-getters from last year, Shaq Merasty left for the ECHL and Jordan DePape finished his eligibility.
“We’re very excited by our recruiting year, with a number of our players returning we didn’t have that many roster spots open, we were looking to fill specific needs and we believe we have filled those needs,” Sirant said.
This season the Bisons will look toward Justin Augert, Quintin Lisoway, Brett Stovin, Remi Laurencelle, and Nick Zajac to create offence in a tough Canada West division.
“I think the addition of Michael St. Croix and Zach Franko will be a huge addition to our offence,” Sirant said. “I believe our offence this year will be stronger this year. Our offensive game will be stronger, last year we lost six games by one goal, we need to improve in that area.”
In between the pipes for the herd will be senior goaltender Byron Spriggs, along with Justin Paulic and Dasan Sydora. Spriggs led the way for Manitoba last season appearing in 22 games finishing with a 2.82 goals against average, and a .913 save percentage. Paulic finished with a 3.74 GAA and a save percentage of .878 while Sydora saw just over 17 minutes of action last season.
If the Bisons hope to improve on their record this season, special teams will need to be an area of consideration. In 2016-17, Manitoba finished with a power play operating at just above 17 per cent and a penalty kill at 77 per cent. Keeping out of the box, killing off more penalties, and converting on more man advantages will be critical for the success of the Bisons this year.
There is no shortage of local talent on this season’s edition of the herd, with 14 players hailing from Winnipeg, with an additional nine players from rural Manitoba for a total of 23 members calling the Keystone Province home.
Four games in, Manitoba is currently 1-3 on the season, splitting UBC at home and getting swept by the nationally ranked University of Alberta Golden Bears this past weekend on the road. Manitoba faces another tough task in the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at home this weekend.