Manitoba vs. Saskatchewan
7 p.m., tonight, Saturday
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Given their apparent edge in size and their physical play, the University of Manitoba Bisons may be better suited for the smaller confines of the Rutherford Rink than the hometown Saskatchewan Huskies.
"I'm sure they're well-suited for their rink, but speaking about our team, one thing I like is that we're able to combine our speed and skill with the willingness to play a physical, gritty aggressive game," Bisons head coach Mike Sirant was saying Thursday as his men's hockey team hunkered down on the bus for the always gruelling trip from Winnipeg to Saskatoon.
"We're capable of adjusting to different rinks, whether it's the smaller ice surface of Rutherford or the larger ice surface of Max Bell (at the U of M)."
The Huskies have more skill than ever, a little more finesse than grit and more polish than spit. And it's working. The Huskies (10-6-0) have won four of their last five games and seven of their last nine. They are in second place, six points behind Alberta and two ahead of both Manitoba and Calgary.
While Manitoba (7-3-4) sports a 2-1-3 record away from home this season in the Canada West conference, the Bisons have won four of their last five games against the Huskies. Three of those wins came at Rutherford. Two of the victories propelled the Bisons over the Huskies in last year's league semifinal, sending Manitoba to the University Cup national tournament in Thunder Bay, Ont..
"It's a team that has come in here and they've had some success," said second-year U of S forward Kyle Bortis. "We've got to put an end to that. We've got to put a doubt in their mind that they can't come into our rink and win. Respect our opponent, but make sure we work hard and know what's at stake.
"We're in an OK position, but we can't be satisfied. We've got to keep pushing and pushing."
Push comes to shove is part of the growing rivalry between the Huskies and Bisons.
"It's always a special weekend when we play the Huskies," said Sirant.
"We're both trying to go for second place in our conference while still staying a close distance to Alberta. We have a real good balance on our team with our speed and our skill. We play a very up-tempo, high-pressure game both offensively and defensively. Also, our guys are willing to play solid defensively and be involved physically and sacrifice themselves, whether it's blocking shots or finishing checks."
Sirant has a relatively healthy lineup except for forward Ian Duval.
"We had quite a few longer-term injuries in the first half and most nights we played full games with only three lines," noted Sirant. "We now have the luxury of filling the whole 20-man roster and four lines."
One of the new faces in the Huskies' lineup is Derek Hulak, who gets his first taste of Bison meat this weekend.
"When you only play 14 games in the second half, every game is like a playoff game," said Hulak. "Every night is going to be a battle. We're real excited that we were able to pick up four points (last) weekend, but these points are just as important."