Sunday, 20 September 2015

Checking Out The Ladies - Bookends

If there is one major void in Canadian reporting of any kind - mainstream media, blogging, random articles - it's that there is practically zero coverage of CIS sports. Local newspapers will make an effort if something remarkable happens, but the local universities in most Canadian cities get relegated to the back pages of the sports section assuming they're even included. Today and going forward every Sunday, HBIC is going to take an in-depth look at the stories and highlights from CIS women's hockey with a major focus on the Canada West Conference. This as-yet-untitled series will strictly be about the women's game, so you'll want to tune into HBIC every Sunday or Monday to catch up on this country's collegiate level hockey!

From today through Tuesday and again on Friday, I'm going to post articles on two teams per day to get everyone up and running with the Canada West women's teams. Wednesday, of course, is Antler Banter as we look at the AHL, and Thursday is The Hockey Show preview, so those two days will interrupt the running previews of the Canada West teams. However, by Saturday, you'll have a clear picture on which teams should do well, which teams are rebuilding, and who will challenge for the Canada West crown again this season and compete for the CIS Championship in Calgary in 2016. Since there are four teams in Alberta and two in Saskatchewan, we'll start with the book-ends of the Canada West Conference!

We'll start on the west coast with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. Head coach Graham Thomas is readying his squad for his fourth season in CIS play. The 2013 CIS Coach of the Year saw his team finish in second-place in the regular season one year ago at 18-6-4 with 81 goals-for and 53 goals-against, but fell to the University of Manitoba Bisons in the Canada West semi-final game. Tatiana Rafter tied for the lead on the team in goals (14), and led in assists (15) and points (29) which put her third in league scoring. Samantha Langford logged the most minutes in the blue paint in 2014-15, putting up an 11-4-2 record with a 1.77 GAA, a .932 save percentage and four shutouts.

UBC saw Tatiana Rafter fulfill her five years of eligibility, so she won't be skating for the Thunderbirds this season. Sarah Casorso, Nikola Brown-John, and Katie Greenway also played their full five years, so there are some open roster spots for the T-Birds to fill. Replacing Rafter's offence will be a big challenge for coach Thomas as Rafter was key in the UBC scheme, but there are players ready to step up. Rebecca Unrau, a fifth-year player this season, was second in team-scoring last year and will expected to shoulder some of that load. Helping her will be fourth-year player Nicole Saxvik, but this offence will look to spread the scoring around through the remainder of the roster.

The blue line is anchored by fourth-year player Kelly Murray and second-year player Celine Tardif, but they'll miss Casorso's scoring and minutes this season. Devon Morrison, Cailey Hay, Madison Patrick, and Kaylin Snodgrass will need to find ways to generate offence from the back-end this season to help the lack of scoring up front. Stephanie Payne red-shirted last season, so she could crack the roster if she's of an offensive mind. As a unit, the T-Birds are aggressive in their own zone and like to pressure the puck which helped them to the third-best goals-against in Canada West last season. They'll need more of that to keep their opposition at bay if the scoring isn't there.

Samantha Langford had impressive numbers thanks, in part, to that ravenous defensive game, but she held her own in a lot of UBC games as well. Langford's strength is her positioning as she always seems to be square to the puck, and her lateral movement is among the best in the conference. She can be beat if she's moving, but she's a wall when she's set and ready. Former Team Canada and Long Beach Ice Dog netminder Danielle Dubé actually had better statistics than Langford in her ten games as she posted a 6-1-0 record with a 1.44 GAA, .926 save percentage, and one shutout, but the 39 year-old only played home games last season as she's a full-time firefighter as well as an Arts student. I appreciate the fact that she still wants to play, but it might be time to let the kids play a little more. Danielle Lemon and Katie Greenway played a combined six games and finished the season with a combined 1-2-1 record.

The one notable recruit for the Thunderbirds this summer was Norwegian Mathea Fischer. The feisty 5'6" forward played five games at the IIHF Division-I World Championships where she had a goal and two assists for the emerging hockey nation, but she's been dominant in top Norwegian women's league while playing for Vålerenga. In ten games in 2012-13, she had 14 goals and 15 assists! She spent the last two seasons in Ontario where she's been playing in the Ontario Hockey Academy at a high level. Fischer could be the player that replaces the offence that the T-Birds lost with Rafter, and it appears she's ready to make her name known in Canada West!

So far in the preseason, the T-Birds are 3-2 with wins coming via 3-2 and 3-0 decisions against Pacific Junior Women's team Pacific Steelers and a 3-2 win versus the RSEQ's McGill Martlets. They dropped two games via a 2-0 decision to Queen's and a 5-1 loss to Montreal, pushing their non-conference record to 1-2-0. They'll return home this upcoming weekend for a pair of games against the U18 BC women's team before kicking off their season on October 3 as hosts to the Lethbridge Pronghorns.

The most easterly team in the Canada West Conference is the University of Manitoba Bisons. Head coach Jon Rempel is back for his twelfth season behind the bench at Wayne Fleming Arena, and will look to build on last season's success. The three-time Canada West Coach of the Year saw his team finish 19-7-2 for third-place in the conference last season with 79 goals-for and 51 goals-against, but fell in the Canada West Final to the Alberta Pandas. Alanna Sharman, the CIS Rookie of the Year, tied for the team lead in goals (17) last season, and led the Bisons in assists (23) and points (40) which made her the conference's highest scorer. The majority of the workload between the pipes was handled by Rachel Dyck as she recorded a 16-4-1 record along with a 1.70 GAA, a .927 save percentage, and three shutouts.

There were some notable departures from the Bisons lineup. Maggie Litchfield-Medd, Jessica Rosenbaum, Michelle Pawluk, Jessica Dyck, and Chantal Gamache all moved on from the Bisons roster, leaving some sizable holes to fill. In Litchfield-Medd's case, there will be a new captain for the Bisons this season, and there will be a massive hole on the blue line with Pawluk closing out her collegiate career. Rosenbaum, Gamache, and Dyck all played supporting roles, but they were crucial in key situations for coach Rempel, so there will have to be some new players who step up and fill the void left by these seniors.

Having the reigning scoring champion as a rookie is a pretty nice luxury for the Bisons, and there's still a lot of hockey for Alanna Sharman to play in Canada West. There's no question she should take another run at the scoring title this season. Her linemate in Alana Serhan is also back, and the Bisons' second-leading scorer should find the same chemistry with Sharman once more. Personally, I expect a big season out of Serhan as this is her opportunity to grab the spotlight. Lauryn Keen will also be back and wearing a different number, but the Bisons' third-leading scorer should be given every opportunity to contribute more this season. Charity Price, Kayleigh Wiens, and Courtlyn Oswald should be given more of the workload as well.

The blue line will miss Pawluk, but Erica Rieder has every opportunity to bring the offence from the defence. Rieder started slow last season, but the rookie came on strong as the season ended. Rieder, if she had a good off-season, has the ability to a game-changer from the back-end for the team. Caitlin Fyten and Lindsay Blight are solid veterans who play a very sound defensive game, but they'll have to chip in where they can. Megan Tully, Alexandra Anderson, and Jayden Skoleski round out a very capable six-woman unit who should be solid from top to bottom once more in keeping the opposition to the outside.

Rachel Dyck, after having red-shirted the year previous, broke into Canada West in a big way. Alberta's Lindsey Post was the only goaltender statistically better than Dyck all season, but the third-year netminder is looking to supplant the Alberta stopper this season as the top goalie. Dyck is extremely good at squaring up to shooters, and her flexibility and lateral movement make it nearly impossible to score along the ice. While she does give up goals while screened, Dyck has the ability to make herself big to cut down angles and close off holes to reduce the amount of twine visible behind her. This skill came in handy a number of times last season. Amanada Schubert is one of the best personalities in Canada West and isn't afraid to show it. Her work in the crease is respectable, but she was used sparingly last season while Rempel relied heavily on Rachel Dyck. In just seven games, Schubert put up a 3-3-1 record on a 1.99 GAA and a .903 save percentage - numbers that should have led to a better win-loss record for sure. It might be a good idea to use Schubert more this season to keep Dyck ready for the Canada West Playoffs where strong goaltending can change a short series dramatically. Elisha Oswald and newly-recruited Jessica Vance are the goaltenders-in-waiting as they look for their opportunities to seize a roster spot.

The Bisons added a few key recruits, but none more noticeable than former Finnish Olympian Venla Hovi. The 27 year-old won a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and has a pair of bronze medals from the 2008 and 2009 World Championships. In six games with EHV Sabres Vienna at the European Women's Champions Cup, Hovi had three goals and four assists. She can definitely skate, she doesn't mind crashing the crease, and she has shown that she can score at any level. While it might take Hovi a few games to get her Canada West legs under her, expect Hovi to find the back of the net often for the Bisons this year.

Joining Hovi are forward Celine Caron and defenceman Taryn Kokesch. Both Caron and Kokesch bring offence to the team as newly-signed recruits. Caron played with the Eastman Selects in Manitoba, and led the team in scoring with 25 points in 27 games last season as well as playing for the Steinbach Sabres boys' high school hockey team. While she may be small at 5'3", the size of the fight in Caron won't go unnoticed. Kokesch finished third in scoring on the Peace County Female Midget AAA Storm in Alberta, and she's not afraid to mix it up as she tied for the lead in penalty minutes as well. She can skate, she can shoot, and she'll be a solid presence on the Bisons' blue line this season. One of the key players to return to Manitoba as a player is former NCAA Maine Black Bear Karissa Kirkup. In 2012-13, the Virden, Manitoba native had 102 points with Westman of the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League, and she turned her three years of leading the MFMHL in scoring into her NCAA opportunity. In 30 games with the Black Bears, Kirkup had five goals and eight assists. She should see time with Sharman and Serhan this season as the top unit on this Bisons squad.

Manitoba is 4-4 in preseason action thus far having downed the Shaftesbury Titans high school team by scores of 4-3 and 6-0. They dropped a pair of games to Team Manitoba by 2-1 and 4-2 scores before bouncing back with a 3-1 victory. In the Windsor Pre-Season Tournament, the Bisons dropped a 4-2 decision to the Ottawa GeeGees, a 2-0 loss to the defending CIS champions in the Western Mustangs, but got one back by downing the host Windsor Lancers by a 5-2 score. That sits their non-conference record at 1-2-0 right now, and they visit the University of North Dakota for a cross-border NCAA-CIS tilt against the #7-ranked team in the United States this weekend. The Bisons open the regular season at home against the Alberta Pandas in a Canada West Final rematch on October 3 and 4.

There are the two of the final four teams from last season, and we'll see how things shakedown with the season opening in a couple of weeks. I suspect both of these teams to be in the top-four when all is said and done this season, but it will all come down to offensive production by the Thunderbirds and defensive responsibility for the Bisons.

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

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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