Mount Royal Cougars playoff push
Cougars look for best finish in CIS history
By Dan Khavkin, Staff Writer
After beating the Manitoba Bisons in a best-of-three-series in the quarters, the Cougars booked their ticket to the Canada West semi-finals, setting up a weekend matchup in Saskatoon vs. the second ranked school in the nation.
In their third trip to the Canada West semi-finals in four years, despite a valiant effort, the Mount Royal University Cougars had their bubble burst by Canada West’s top dogs.
The Cougars’ playoff trip didn’t come without dramatics. MRU has dropped their last six games to close the regular season before the quarterfinal meeting with Manitoba.
MRU also dropped from the national top-10 rankings for the first time all season during that slump.
The team needed to start the playoffs on a positive note with recent struggles haunting bench boss Bert Gilling. The boys in blue struggled in 2017, posting a record of just 4-8 since the turn of the calendar.
To make things worse, those four wins came against teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
Coming into their fourth post-season since joining the CIS, the Cougars posted a 4-0 record against Manitoba during the regular season, outscoring them 17-6 with Connor Rankin, Canada West’s point scoring champion, scoring seven goals in the four matchups.
The Cougs’ narrowly squeaked by in a series that went the distance, pulling away to win the series 2-1 against a scrappy Bisons squad.
Fourth year Cougar Cam Lanigan, the surprise starter in all three games over Colin Cooper, was the story of this series, bailing his team out all weekend stopping 75 of 80 pucks faced.
Game one set the tone for a scrappy and hard fought weekend, as the Cougars routed the Bison 6-1.
Luke Simpson helped his team jump on the lead early when he snapped a personal 13-game scoring drought scoring not one, but two on the night.
Rankin kept up his trend of haunting the Bisons. Rankin notched his second hat trick of the season against this school, finishing with 11 goals in seven games against Manitoba.
Fun fact about rookie Jamal Watson, game one was his first ever playoff game.
Yes, you read that right, he never suited up for a post-season game in his junior career for the Swift Current Broncos or the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL. He would assist on Rankin’s first goal.
The two schools aren’t known for having a fierce rivalry, but tempers continued to flare when David Stephens was on the receiving end of a hit to the head. A scrum quickly ensued with both players getting sent off and the referees issuing final warnings to both benches.
Game-two took place the next night where the Bison stole a 3-2 win from the Cougars and forced a season deciding game-three.
The message was loud and clear from the bench bosses: throw anything on net and jump on second chances. That’s exactly what happened when captain Matt Brown and Zach Henry scored on back-to-back deflections, as the Cougars took the game two lead.
However, the charging Bisons continued being a nuisance to the Cougars defense. Colton Waltz, who probably needed a couple ice packs after blocking shots all weekend, couldn’t stop all the chances thrown at them from a desperate Manitoba side, playing for their lives.
Controversy hit late in the back and forth affair when Tanner Olstad took a five-minute major penalty for high sticking when he needlessly fouled and injured the Bisons captain on the back check. Olstad was immediately ejected from the game, putting the Cougars down a man for five minutes.
Subsequently, the Bisons scored the go ahead and eventual game-winning goal.
Going into game three, Captain Cougar Matt Brown did everything he could to avoid it being his last game in an MRU jersey. Brown helped his cause early on a crazy backhanded shot. Brown raised the puck past the goalie, and also raised the roof at the Flames Community Rink as the goal opened the floodgates, started a rout of the Bisons, ousting them 7-1.
The defence played big again, composing themselves in their own end while taking chances in the other. Offensive defenseman Jesee Lee found his inner Mario Lemieux and split the whole defensive unit and went five-hole, Maddison Smiley rifled a one-timer from the point and Waltz had a puck bounce of his shin and into the net, giving the Cougars defense three goals to their name.
While the Cougars had the night to celebrate their big win, it was back to business the next weekend in Saskatoon.
With a spot for the national playoffs up for grabs, the Cougars were ready to give it all they had against the skilled and talented Huskies squad. Former WHL champion, and third string for Team Canada in the Spenglar Cup, Jordon Cooke, backed the Huskies.
MRU went 1-3 against Saskatchewan with their only win coming on MRU Remembers Night, a 6-1 rout.
Cooke stole game-one, stopping 38 shots faced and preventing a Cougars comeback as the visiting squad dropped the first game 4-3.
Third year forward Parker Thomas scored the first and last goal for the Huskies, who made their shots count, only mustering 21 pucks on net.
Watson and Smiley scored back to back on the power play to pull within one but Parker’s insurance marker sealed game-one despite Maclise’s late tally.
Game-two took place the next evening, where another game of shot for shot was too much for the boys in blue to handle, dropping the game 3-2, closing out their 2016-2017 campaign.
Brown’s favorite memory in a Cougars jersey was winning MRU’s first ever playoff series in the CIS against this school. Brown revived some of that magic when he opened the scoring in game two only to see the Huskies tie the game a minute later.
Devin Gannon wrapped the puck around Cooke to restore a Cougars lead but the fighting Huskie squad wouldn’t back down and scored two in a row to capture their first lead. From there the Huskies ran away with it to book their ticket to Canada West’s final against a formidable Golden Bears squad from Edmonton.
It was a hard fought battle for the Cougars and next season looks promising. As long as the injury bug doesn’t hit like it did this season, along with a little more consistency, the Cougars will be a top contender once again.