Men’s hockey continues playoff push with sweep
Connor Chaulk led the team with three points and shootout winner
In what has been one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory, the Cougars men’s hockey team has jumped into playoff position after sitting dead last in Canada West with just two wins coming into Christmas break. Since then, the team has been on a tear, going 6-1-1 and improving their record to 8-13-3. However, in spite of the Cougars’ improvement, the playoff competition has been heating up. Coming into the Jan. 24 weekend against Manitoba, the Cougars sat two points behind the UBC Thunderbirds and the Bisons in seventh place. This means that the weekend presented the opportunity not only to gain on UBC, but to catch up to Manitoba, which is one the Cougars sunk their teeth into.
On Friday night they had a huge shootout win, coming back from a deficit of three goals and then coming back again to force the overtime. Four different Cougars scored to force overtime, including team leader Connor Chaulk who notes how important the game was to the team.
“Friday night we got off to a tough start, and I think in past years with the character we had we would have just sunk our ship there, but the way we came back and the way we rallied together as a group to win that game 5-4 was huge for us. It really shows what kind of group we’ve got in there.”
Chaulk also scored a beauty in the shootout to decide the game. Coming down with speed, the cagey forward faked right and then ripped a hard shot right over the blocker of Manitoba goalie Tyler Brown.
“I had a really good chance in the third; me and Dupereault had a two on zero and we didn’t bury it, so I had to redeem myself a little bit. It was awesome, any time to get the game winning goal or a shootout goal it’s an exciting feeling”
Last week against Mount Royal, the Cougars played great on Friday but came out slow on Saturday and got burnt. For Chaulk, this was something they wanted to avoid in Manitoba.
“We used that Mount Royal game as a steppingstone, knowing it wasn’t going to be easy coming in Saturday on the road.”
With that approach, the Cougars sure made it look easy on Saturday. The Nagel, Chaulk, and Platt line came out flying with a goal early in the first and the powerplay added two more to give the Cougars a 3-0 lead. Halfway through the second it was 5-0 and the Cougars held on to win it 6-3. With this weekend in the rear view mirror, the playoffs are dead ahead, and with UBC breathing down their neck, the Cougars season is not one hundred per cent in their control.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of your mind all the time. You’re doing a little bit of scoreboard watching, but at the end of the day it’s in our hands now. We look at Manitoba, they’re only two points up at us and we hold the tiebreaker so we look at that as a spot we can jump into if we can string a couple more wins together.”
UBC plays last-ranked Lethbridge next week, while the Cougars take on the juggernaut University of Alberta.
“We know we are facing the two top teams in the league in back to back weeks but we’re a different team than the times we played them before Christmas, and we are looking forward to the challenge here.”
The Cougars are a different team to be sure, but what has made the biggest difference?
“Obviously the addition of Nagel has been huge for the team and for myself personally, he’s brought an element that we’ve been missing, but even before Christmas we were playing really good hockey. I think now coming into the new year we wanted to re-write the script. The team hasn’t made the playoffs in the past seven years, but this is a new group of guys in here and we are ready to change that tradition and we want to get back in the playoffs.”
The Cougars of 2020 are a different team than the Cougars of 2019, but Connor Chaulk also looks like a different player. He has reached another level since the injection of Nagel into the roster and now leads the team with 17 points. For the second-year centre, the change has been part elbow grease and part puck-luck.
“Obviously capitalizing is huge, I was getting chances before Christmas and wasn’t able to finish or line mates have been unable to finish. Things have just been changing a little bit with the addition of Nagel, we are generating double the amount we were generating before Christmas. That chemistry has almost been instant between us. On the other side, Bryce Platt has been playing really well and the chemistry between us three seems to click.”
With the All-Star Weekend in the NHL this weekend, it prompts the idea of a U Sports all-star game. The league already names all-stars, but what does Chaulk think about getting them together for a game and skills competition like in the NHL?
“Oh yeah, I think that would be great actually. Even if there were three divisions, I think that would be a pretty cool setup for sure. I think if it’s in the right place it could draw a real crowd. That’d be awesome to establish something like that.”
All-Star break aside, the Cougars are in the fight of their lives to end their seven-year playoff drought. The Golden Bears have dropped just five games this season, but the Cougars might need to make it six to stay in playoff position. Chaulk thinks his team is up to the test.
“They are first place in the league. I am really looking forward to the challenge, it gives us an idea of where we stand. I think they know it’s going to be a challenge; they’re not just going to come in here and walk all over us.”
The new look Cougars will battle for their season at the Co-operators Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.