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Rising hockey Herd faces beast in Bears

University of Manitoba going up against nation's No. 1 team

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Bisons coach Mike Sirant has seen his team come a long way over the past few weeks.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Bisons coach Mike Sirant has seen his team come a long way over the past few weeks. Photo Store

The University of Manitoba Bisons men's hockey team opened their season with a struggle, and continued with a slog, but now, the squad is clawing its way back up.

Four wins in a row the Bisons have rattled off, after dispatching the UBC Thunderbirds last weekend and Lethbridge in a pair of home shutouts the week before. Prior to that, the team was just 2-7-1 to start the year. Now, they're polishing a 6-7-1 record, tied with Mount Royal and Saskatchewan in their Canada West conference, and just three points behind third-place Regina. So yeah, things are looking up.

"The things they've been working on from the start of season are paying off for us," head coach Mike Sirant said, before leading his troops into practice Tuesday. "We feel very good about how we can compete, about our chances to emerge ahead of the rest of that pack by the end of the season."

'We feel very good about how we can compete, about our chances to emerge ahead of the rest of that pack by the end of the season'

-- Bisons coach Mike Sirant

The optimism born of a four-game win streak should be tempered with this reality: those teams the Bisons beat are languishing in the conference basement. Lethbridge, for instance, has just one win in 14 games, and UBC has eked out only three. Still, it was critical to cash in on the opportunity, after the struggles of the month before.

"It's amazing what happens in sport when guys are playing with confidence," said goalie Joe Caligiuri.

The turnaround, Caligiuri said, started before the win streak did -- he looks back to Nov. 8 and 9 in Regina. Though the Bisons dropped both tilts, Caligiuri saw the team in front of him playing a tighter defence.

"At the start of the year, with the younger group and guys getting accustomed to playing together, we didn't really play too well as a team," he said. "In the last few weekends, guys starting to get some confidence, playing an all-around team game, team defence."

The attack too began to jell that weekend. Consider the stats of Aaron Lewadniuk, the former Brandon Wheat Kings forward who came to the Bisons after two seasons in the ECHL. He had just four assists in the Bisons' first eight tilts, and was a minus-1. In Regina, he exploded with three goals and an assist in two games, and has racked up 11 points total in a six-game point streak that started that weekend. He's now plus-9.

It's not just Lewadniuk, Sirant stressed.

"We're getting a contribution from everybody," the coach said. "Collectively, everybody's taken accountability to step up in their performance."

Some of that is just a learning process. The Bisons are unusually young this season, with 16 of 23 players on the roster in just their first or second year. And they didn't get an easy introduction into CIS play, what with facing dominant Alberta and Calgary in the opening weeks.

"Going against the top two teams right off the bat, with a younger team I think guys were a little shell-shocked," Caligiuri said. "Now, we go through 'em again."

That's the big challenge ahead: The Bisons head to Edmonton this weekend to play two tilts against the CIS No. 1-ranked University of Alberta Golden Bears, who whipped the Herd 5-0 and 4-0 in October. Now, they will need to break out everything they've learned since then.

"They really took it to us week one, at home," Caligiuri said. "We owe 'em, definitely."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2013 C8

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Updated on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at 6:23 AM CST: Corrects spelling of Caligiuri

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