Cougars conference play opens with tilt versus Bears

Cougars conference play opens with tilt versus Bears

EDMONTON – The Mount Royal Cougars will play a home-and-home series against defending conference champion Alberta Golden Bears, as the conference gets set for puck drop Friday night.

MRU's men's hockey team will return 2016-17 scoring champion Connor Rankin who will lead the troops on the ice. The Cougars came out of the regular season last year as the second highest scoring team with 99 goals and on defence, had 80 goals against, ranking them 4th in Canada West. Colin Cooper's 11 wins between the posts helped lead MRU a fourth-place finish and then to a post season performance that saw them enter the second round before being swept by Saskatchewan. The losses of captain Matt Brown and Cam Maclise will see opportunity for new players, as well as returners to make their mark come Friday. Some newcomers include Ryley Lindgren who hails from the WHL's Swift Current Broncos, Brad Kennedy who comes out of the MHL's Pictou County Crushers and Mitch Lipon who joins the ranks from the AJHL's Whitecourt Wolverines.

The 2017-18 CW regular season opens this weekend, and if the men's hockey pre-season poll is any indication, Alberta and last year's U SPORTS silver medalist Saskatchewan Huskies are expected to compete once again for the CW crown. The pair finished tied in the poll, earning four first-place votes and three second-place votes apiece.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are no strangers when it comes to battling for the conference championship, as the duo have met 19 times in the conference championship series, including three of the last five years.

Last season the bitter rivals went the distance in the Canada West championship series, as it took three games to decide a conference champion, with the Bears eventually emerging victorious thanks to a 6-3 win at Rutherford Rink in Saskatoon, which is set to be replaced next season with a new home for the hockey Huskies. 

While Alberta and Saskatchewan are the favourites according to the coaches heading into 2017-18, there will be no shortage of intrigue behind the Bears and Huskies.

The revamped Calgary Dinos slot in third in the poll, as head coach Mark Howell's team looks to regain the form that took the program to back-to-back conference championship series in 2015 and 2016. Calgary features 16 combined players in either their first or second year of eligibility and went 6-2 during the pre-season, with wins over fellow CW schools Lethbridge, Regina, Manitoba, and Mount Royal. 

Those three teams are all expected to finish behind the Dinos this season according to the poll, which slots the UBC Thunderbirds in the fourth spot. The T-Birds enter the 2017-18 season with the hope some stability at the head coaching position will set the course for future success, as the position has been filled on a permanent basis by Sven Butenschon. The former Vancouver Canuck served as interim head coach last season, after the rapid departure of Adam Shell prior to training camp in August of 2016.

Butenschon has brought in a healthy crop of players during his first recruiting cycle, most notably Tyler Sandhu at centre. The new addition is looking to help fill the void left by the departures of Anthony Bardaro and Luke Lockhart this season. Sandhu, who hails from Richmond, B.C., is coming off a career year in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans, finishing the 2016-17 season just outside the top 20 scorers in the league with 83 points.

For more on all eight Canada West men's hockey teams, take a look at the full team previews here and be sure to watch every CW regular season and playoff hockey game online at Canada West TV. You can watch the action by purchasing a Canada West TV pass.

For fans looking to get a sneak peak of the conference's revamped streaming site this season, be sure to tune into the Canada West TV Game of the Week for free this Friday at 7 p.m. MDT, when the Alberta Golden Bears host the Mount Royal Cougars.

2017 CW men's hockey pre-season coaches poll

Place / Team / Points (First-place votes)

T1. Alberta & Saskatchewan / 46 (4)

3. Calgary / 37

4. UBC / 24

5. *Manitoba / 23

6. Mount Royal / 23

7. Lethbridge / 18

8. Regina / 7

NOTES: First-place vote worth 7 pts., second-place worth 6 pts. etc. / *Awarded higher position based on greater number of higher placed votes.