VANCOUVER - The last time the UBC Thunderbirds faced the top-ranked team in CIS university men's hockey it didn't go very well.
Coach Milan Dragicevic's T-Birds were swept at home by the then No. 1 Saskachewan Huskies – ouch! – and fell back to the pack. Their response? Four straight wins, an 8-3-1 record, third place in the eight-team Canada West conference and a No. 9 national ranking.
Now the T-Birds face a test even bigger than the Huskies. They're off to Edmonton to confront the Alberta Golden Bears, the new No. 1, in a two-game series beginning Friday. The Bears have won eight straight and are a perfect 5-0-0 on home ice.
“This is going to be a good indication to see where we are at this time of the season,” Dragicevic said Thursday as he put the 'Birds through a final tuneup. “Alberta is No. 1 for a reason. They've scored the most goals in Canada, they have great goaltending and a great defence.”
Although the 28-game Canada West season is just reaching its midpoint, the playoff picture is clear. Two teams from the conference will be going to CIS nationals and one, Saskatchewan, is already guaranteed a spot as host school. The Golden Bears are obviously favoured to earn the other spot.
The T-Birds can't win that spot this weekend but a good showing can go a long way towards planting doubt in the Bears and confidence in the 'Birds.
“For us to be in Saskatoon in March, it's games and weekends like this where we really have to be prepared and get our game to where it has to be,” noted Dragicevic. “We're 8-3-1 and we've put ourselves in a really good position. We're not surprised at our record. It's where we expected to be and we've given ourselves an opportunity to compete for first and second spot before the Christmas break.”
With 17 points, the T-Birds trail first-place Alberta by five points but hold two games in hand. Saskatchewan is second with 18 points. Following this weekend, UBC will play a pair against the Regina Cougars before stopping for exams and the holidays.
According to Dragicevic, the biggest difference between this year's team and others he's coached on campus is offence. UBC has the top power play in Canada West at 23.9 per cent and three dependable lines.
His top unit right now is Nate Fleming, Cole Wilson and Wyatt Hamilton, who have combined for 34 points and a plus-30 mark in 12 games. Former Vancouver Giant star Neil Manning is making plays from the back end and has 11 assists, second best in Canada West among defencemen. All told, the T-Birds have tallied 46 times, an average of nearly four per outing.
“We're scoring a lot of goals compared to other years and, from a coaching standpoint, there is a comfort zone there,” said Dragicevic. “We can put guys out in any situation. We don't have to hide players.”
For netminder Jordan White, now in his fourth year with the T-Birds, it's been a long wait. The Surrey native is upholding his end of things with a 6-2-0 record, a 2.36 GAA and .919 save percentage.
“From top to bottom, this is probably the most depth we've had since I've been here,” said White, a kinesiology student. “We have new guys who have come into the program and been able to step in and play a lot of minutes, which we really haven't had in the past. It's nice, too, as a goalie when you know your teammates can put some goals into the other team's net. That has given everybody a bit of confidence.”
White also figures his confidence has been boosted by facing Vancouver Canuck and other NHL players during the frequent practices they've shared during the lockout.
“When you face the same guys every practice, you can kind of anticipate what they're going to do,” he explained. “So having new players out there, especially the Canucks with their skill level, kind of translates into better game performances.”
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