By: Monty Mosher
The ride to the Halifax Forum on Wednesday will have some extra meaning for Darcy Ashley.
The UPEI Panthers will begin their quarter-final playoff series against the Saint Mary's Huskies, and the Panthers will be considered underdogs.
The Panthers have played much better in the second half of the season and posted a win on the weekend against the two-time defending AUS champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men. UPEI went 5-1 down the stretch.
The Huskies, however, were 18-10-2 in the regular season while the Panthers were 11-18-1. The Huskies beat them 9-1 in Halifax on Feb. 3.
Win or lose this week, hockey is likely winding down for the 24-year-old native of Alberton, P.E.I., who went home to play university hockey after four years with the Halifax Mooseheads. That included a Memorial Cup title alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Martin Frk and Zach Fucale in 2013.
A trip through the streets of Halifax always brings out some nostalgia in Ashley, who had 98 goals and 154 assists in 239 career games with the Mooseheads.
"It's like a second home," he said of Halifax. "I spent four of the better years of my life there. Any time I get to go back is a real pleasure."
He's kept tabbed on his ex-Mooseheads teammates. "It's a bond that we all have that can never be broken. It was a super-close team that year. You can pick up the phone and call anybody off that team today and strike up a 30-minute conversation."
Ashley's grit is hard earned. His family has fished lobster for several generations. He already has his own boat and fishing license.
"Darcy is a very competitive person," said UPEI coach Forbes MacPherson. "It comes natural to him. It is in his DNA. He wants to be the best at everything. He competes every single day at practice, and every shift in games. He has become our engine here at UPEI."
UPEI's championship drought goes back to 1991. Do they have the horsepower to win this year?
"We've been a different team since Christmas," said the five-foot-eight Ashley, graduating with a business degree this spring. "We've been a lot more consistent."
The Panthers beat defending U Sports champ UNB, Acadia, Dalhousie and Moncton, along with blanking the X-Men, over the last three weeks to earn their dark horse status. But the Huskies gave them fits, winning the regular-season series 5-0.
The great mystery is why it took so long for UPEI to get it together. They lost seven straight and 13 of 15 in the first half.
"We were pretty optimistic going into the season and ran into a few injuries," Ashley said. "Things just didn't go our way there for a while. But it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
Ashley epitomized determination with the Mooseheads. He was named to captain the team in his final season.
When his time in junior ran out, he joined the Panthers with close friend and Halifax teammate Brent Andrews. Both are still at UPEI.
It hasn't been an easy ride. Injuries, particularly concussions, have limited his production.
"It's hard on the head, no pun intended, whenever you are injured and you are spending time watching your teammates play," he said. "This is probably the healthiest year I've had since I've been at UPEI. I feel as healthy as I ever was."
He scored 10 goals and added 13 assists in 27 games, placing him in the top 25 in AUS scoring.
He hasn't ruled out a fifth season at UPEI, but thinks this may be it for him. If so, he'll cherish it all.
"It was nice to come home and play hockey for a great program," he said. "It's a great team with a great coach. I've got nothing but positive things to say about it. It would be nice to do something special here to end off my AUS career."
The quarter-finals are best-of-three series with Saint Mary's at UPEI on Friday night. Game 3, if needed, would be Sunday night in Halifax.
Dalhousie opens its best-of-three quarter-final on Wednesday night at Acadia with Game 2 in Halifax on Friday night. Acadia would host the deciding game on Sunday night, if required.
UNB and St. F.X. picked up opening-round byes.