Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Checking Out The Ladies - Oil Country

We continue our four-part look at the eight women's teams in Canada West hockey, and we've seen a couple of teams bring in excellent recruiting classes to add to their lineups while another team found an international player who should bring the offence. The fourth team didn't really bring on any new stars-in-the-making, but there is a lot of opportunity for any of the current or new players to step in and make an impact. With four teams to go, there have been two teams who should be in the top-three and two more who should battle it out for fourth-place and lower. Today, we'll see a team from each of these categories.

If you missed the preview for the UBC Thunderbirds and Manitoba Bisons, please click here. It was an all-Calgary preview yesterday as the Mount Royal Cougars and Calgary Dinos took center-stage. We'll finish off the province of Alberta today as we take a look at the Lethbridge Pronghorns and the Alberta Pandas in this continuing preview series of Canada West women's hockey!

The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns went through major changes this off-season as they finished in eighth-place in Canada West to find themselves at the bottom of the standings. They posted a 6-21-1 record with a conference-low 32 goals-for and a conference-high 88 goals-against. In other words, it wasn't a great season in Lethbridge for the women. They'll be led into the season by first-time head coach Michelle Janus after she replaced interim head coach Hailey Wood this summer who replaced former head coach Chandy Kaip who took medical leave before resigning outright. Janus will have her work cut out for her in trying to improve this Pronghorns squad. Sadie Lenstra led the team in goals (7) and points (14) while tying for the lead in assists (7) with Sarah Spence. Crystal Patterson played in every game last season, and the goaltender posted a 6-21-1 record with a 3.10 GAA, a .913 save percentage, and two shutouts.

The graduating class will leave some big holes in the Pronghorns' lineup. Gone are goaltender Crystal Patterson, defenceman Courtney Minor, forward Chelsea Minor, forward Angela Burke, and defenceman Katie Mucha. Losing Patterson puts a heavy strain on the very inexperienced goaltenders that Lethbridge kept pinned to the bench last season, but there are still four spots available where the Pronghorns will need more than two goals and eight points combined from those four players. No matter which way you look at these departures, there's only one direction that this team can go.

Lenstra was definitely the best player statistically for the Pronghorns last season, but there are some players who could take a step forward this season to help the Pronghorns immensely. Janae Culp finished second in team scoring with six goals and ten points, and she needs to improve that output this season. The same can be said for Sarah Spence, Kirsten Reeves, and Delaney Duchek as all are returning to the Pronghorns this season. Collectively, those three had nine goals and 20 points on the season which is the output each of them need individually if the Pronghorns are going to make noise this season.

Amber Yuha was the leading scorer from the back-end last season with a mere four assists. Jocelyn Sabourin had a goal and an assist to finish second in scoring for the defencemen. Needless to say, the puck movement by the defenders leaves a lot to desire. Yuha and Sabourin are going into the fourth year in the conference, so it's really a case of do-or-die for this very young, very inexperienced defence corps. If there's an Achilles' heel for this Pronghorns team, I think you know where it lies.

I'm not sure what the thought process was for interim head coach Hailey Wood last season, but Patterson played every single minute except for one period last year. Backup Jessica Lohues played just 20 minutes last season and surrendered two goals in her only period of work. She was a rookie last season, but both she and second-year netminding partner Brooklyn Paisley will be forced to carry the load this season with virtually no experience in the conference whatsoever.

It feels like I'm piling on here, but the University of Lethbridge doomed the women's team to another last-place finish this season with a study done last season into the athletics programs at the university. As the report states, "The women's hockey team believes it is on the chopping block. Recruits are even being told to look at other options." Not good news for the Pronghorns who are looking to bounce back after a difficult season. So the question has to be asked in would they even ice team this season?

Well, four days after the news broke, University of Lethbridge president Mike Mahon committed to all of the school's eleven varsity teams in returning for the 2015-16 season. I'm sure that the recruits that the Pronghorns had told to explore other options were still on the table at that point, so I'm inclined to believe that Hailey Wood was able to save her recruiting class. The only problem? It seems they have yet to announce anyone who has been recruited. So while I'd like to tell you that they'll be better, I can't actually buy into that theory at this point.

According to the Lethbridge site, they played the Saskatchewan Huskies in the preseason on September 12 and won 3-2. Saskatchewan, however, shows no evidence of this game ever existing. I'll give Lethbridge the benefit of the doubt, but they have a big test in front of them this weekend as they play in the Mandi Schwartz Challenge in Regina where they'll face the Regina Cougars, the MacEwan University Griffins, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Ooks. Lethbridge will open the season on the road against the UBC Thunderbirds, and won't see their first home game until October 16 when they welcome the Saskatchewan Huskies to town.

The University of Alberta Pandas had themselves another successful season in Canada West last year as they finished atop the standings. Head coach Howie Draper embarks on his 14th season behind the Pandas' bench, and he led his club to a 20-7-1 record last season with 86 goals-for and just 35 goals-against. All-time, Draper's record is an incredible 277-50-8 in conference play for a ridiculous .839 winning percentage, and he has yet to post a losing record in any season since taking over the program. Clearly, the Pandas will be ready to roll once the season opens thanks to Draper's preparation. Jessica Kampjes and Hannah Olenyk tied atop the scoring stats for the Pandas with 25 points apiece with Kampjes leading in goals (13) while Olenyk lead in assists (15). Lindsey Post was the conference's best netminder last season with a 20-6-1 record, a 1.18 GAA, a .940 save percentage, and ten shutouts.

The Pandas lost a warrior in defenceman Kayla Lavallee as she filled her full eligibility. Lavallee was the defenceman that Draper turned to most often in all situations, and she took over games in the defensive zone at times. She doesn't score many points, but she does the little things right and certainly was out on the ice to do the dirty work on many occasions. The rest of the Pandas will return in 2015-16, so the dominance of this program looks to continue!

Kampjes and Olenyk will certainly be relied upon for their her offensive touches once more, but one can't overlook Alison Campbell's ten goals and 23 points, Lindsay Cunningham's 12 goals and 19 points, or Deanna Morin's 12 helpers and 18 points. There's no denying that the offence has depth and the top two lines like to spread the wealth around. Stopping this efficient forward unit is easier said than done, and they all skate extremely well so they are as responsible defensively as they are talented offensively.

Defensively, the Pandas get a pile of offence from their blue line. Hannah Mousek had 13 points, Natasha Steblin had 12 points, and Kirsten Toth had nine points. They move the puck extremely well, and are great at standing up the opposition and preventing a lot of good shots from getting through to the net. Morgan Kelly, Jesse Olfert, and Nicole Reimer round out the six rearguards, and every one of them could step up and put up double-digits in points. This is the best six-woman unit in the conference.

Make no mistake that Lindsey Post will be manning the nets for the Pandas once again. She's intimidating in her stance as she's 5'11" off skates, and she's extremely agile and flexible when it comes to stopping the puck. She has a lightning-quick glove hand, and she rarely misplays a puck. The one way to beat her, however, is to get her to open up which means moving the puck laterally across the crease as she's in her butterfly. That, though, is a tall task with the Alberta defence clearing the crease and tying up bodies. Hannah Baker will see a game or two in the blue paint, but Lindsey Post is the end-all and be-all for the Pandas. Kianna Peterson is the third wheel in the goaltending carousel, but she may see as much time as she did this past season.

Like their brethren in Lethbridge, there is nothing to be found about any recruits for the Pandas. However, they have virtually the same team returning for this upcoming season, so there's no reason to believe they'll slide down the standings. They'll compete all season for top spot in the Canada West Conference, and have a good shot at being in first-place when all is said and done.

The Pandas downed the NAIT Ooks by a 6-0 score, the MacEwan Griffins by an 11-0 score, and Calgary Dinos by a 4-1 score thus far in the preseason. They'll play against the U18 Team Alberta squad this upcoming weekend before opening the season on the road against the Manitoba Bisons in a Canada West Final rematch from one year ago.

These two Alberta-based teams will represent the worst and the best teams in the Canada West Conference this season. I sincerely do hope that the Pronghorns can win a few more games this season so that there's no more talk of disbanding the team. As for the Pandas, here's hoping they lose a few more compared to last year. The odds of that happening, though, aren't very good.

For more great women's hockey news and insights, head over to Women's Hockey Nation for all your women's hockey information!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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