This weekend, the University of Alberta Pandas hockey team host the Manitoba Bisons in the most hotly contested matchup of the week in Canada West play. The weekend series, the last of the regular season, will see the third place Pandas take on the second place Bisons for a bye through the first round of the playoffs. If that didn’t make the atmosphere charged enough, it will also be a charity event for the Pandas. Every year, Pandas hockey picks one game to give back to their community. This year, the game falls on Friday night. The second game of the series will take place on Saturday afternoon and is the final regular season conference game of the 2016-2017 season. This means in addition to supporting a worthwhile cause in this series, the Pandas will also be honouring their fifth year players: Sasha Lutz, Lindsey Post, and Megan Eady.
Over the last several years, Pandas hockey have hosted several charity games for a variety of causes. These causes have been inspired by the experiences of Pandas hockey members and the desire to contribute to worthy social causes. The Pandas have previously supported ovarian cancer research, the Zebra Child Protection Centre, and the student athlete mental health initiative (SAMHI). This year, Pandas hockey has chosen to support a different cause that gets little attention: Lyme Disease. The event will be filled with a variety of charitable fundraising events, including a the 50/50 raffle (which doesn’t occur at most Pandas games).
Lyme Disease is caused by a bacteria and results in a variety of symptoms, including rashes, redness, severe headaches with neck stiffness, loss of the ability to move one or both sides of the face, heart palpations, among other symptoms. There are currently no vaccines for Lyme disease, which affects up to 300,000 people each year in the United States. Lyme disease is carried by ticks, whose habitat is expanding due to climate change. Though Lyme Disease is generally curable, it is also hard to detect in the early stages of the disease. Given all these factors and a personal connection to a member of the Pandas family, it made sense for the Pandas to choose to bring attention to and provide support for this cause.
The Pandas will have a ceremony before their Saturday matinee to honour their graduating players, who have had a tremendous impact on the program. Sasha Lutz, the captain of the 2016-2017 Pandas, scored the game-tying goal in the dying seconds of the third game of the semi-final series against the Manitoba Bisons last season. Megan Eady scored the first and has provided a veteran presence and NCAA experience in her two years with the Pandas. Lindsey Post owns more Pandas goaltending records than any other goaltender in the team’s history. She holds the record for most shutouts, is top five in the CWUAA for conference minutes played, and has more wins than any other goaltender in Pandas history.
The high stakes hockey game will see the return of leading scorer Alex Ponzikoff and head coach Howie Draper, who won a silver medal at the Universaide. Poznikoff’s return is well timed, as she rejoins a Pandas team that has managed to win all of the games they played in her absence. Captain Sasha Lutz had a multi-point game last weekend against the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns. Poznikoff’s line-mate Autumn MacDougall has struggled to put points on the board while the lines have been shuffled, but her play has been strong. MacDougall is able to maintain the puck in the corners and creates plenty of changes in front of the net. In this respect, her play has been very much like Pozinkoff’s.
The Pandas defense has been without veteran defender Morgan Kelly for the past several games, and that has changed the defensive pairings. The Pandas have relied heavily on first year Taylor Kezama over the course of the year, and her pairing with Cayle Dillion has provided the Pandas with strong defensive and offensive capabilities. Fifth year Megan Eady has provided leadership and a steady defensive presence throughout the season.
The Pandas will need to be at their best if they want to take the second place spot from an impressive University of Manitoba Bisons team. With the top scorer in all of Canada West, Lauryn Keen, being backed up by fourth place Venla Hovi, the Bisons offensive abilities will certainly be a test for the Pandas goaltending team. The Bisons are also a strong and fast team, capable of moving the puck and controlling the flow of play. The Pandas won both of their games against the Bisons in Manitoba’s arena – both close, one-goal games—this will be Manitoba’s chance for revenge. Manitoba is also on a six-game winning streak, with their last loss coming the Canada West-leading University of British Colombia Thunderbirds in the middle of January. The Bisons seem to have made an art of peaking at the right time or an impressive playoff run.
The Manitoba team is one with all the necessary elements for a third trip to the Canada West Conference Finals. The first step in that goal is to secure a bye to the semi-finals of the Canada West playoffs. The same can be said of the Pandas, who have the most storied history of any Canadian team and won the Canada West Conference two years ago against the Bisons. The Bisons, however, are looking to gather momentum to carry themselves to the conference title they’ve fallen just short of twice in the last two years. This should be an excellent rivalry game, with both teams having a lot to prove before the playoffs start and looking for the easiest path to victory
This final confrontation before the playoffs, in which the Pandas have booked a spot, takes place Friday, February 10, 2017 at 7pm and Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 2pm at Clare Drake arena. As the Oilers are in their bye week and the Oil Kings are caught in an epic losing streak, it would be well worth any hockey fans' time to check out some Pandas hockey action over the weekend.