Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Rundown - Week 17

Just four teams remain in the hunt for the Canada West Championship banner and the two berths at the U SPORTS National Women's Ice Hockey Championships. The top-four teams in Canada West were ready to battle it out as Alberta, UBC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba all took to the ice this weekend to determine who would advance and who would simply call it a season. We're not going to spend much time on the build-up because you know what's at stake. Let's get this thing going here on The Rundown!

(3)UBC at (2)SASKATCHEWAN - Game One: The Thunderbirds, after sending Mount Royal home last week, traveled to Saskatoon to meet the Huskies in a battle of third-place versus second-place. Saskatchewan had won all four games in the season series, so could UBC put a stop to the bleeding at the hands of the Huskies? Secondly, how would both teams handle a 1:30pm start on a Friday afternoon?

The Huskies treated the home crowd to an incredible first period where they seemed to out-skate and out-hustle the T-Birds all over the ice. UBC's Tory Micklash stood on her head at times to keep this a scoreless game, but she could only do so much. Emily Upgang hit Brooklyn Haubrich wide-open in the slot with a pass, and Haubrich ripped a shot over Micklash's glove for game's opening goal at 14:38. Saskatchewan took that 1-0 lead into the dressing room after outshooting the Thunderbirds 15-5 in the opening frame.

The second period saw the Thunderbirds pick up their play as they outshot the Huskies 11-9, but neither side would dent twine. We'd move to the third period where the Huskies found another goal. Kira Bannatyne grabbed a puck that Bailee Bourassa had knocked off a T-Birds' stick to the blue line, and Bannatyne skated it into the UBC zone before firing a wrist shot that got under Micklash's right pad and settled in the net at 10:06 to make it a 2-0 Saskatchewan lead! With a two-goal lead and only ten minutes remaining, you probably are already aware that's more than enough for netminder Jessica Vance to secure the win, but would she keep the T-Birds off the scoreboard?

Absolutely. Vance recorded her tenth shutout of the season and first win and shutout in the Canada West playoffs in the 2-0 Saskatchewan win. As just mentioned, Vance made 22 saves on the night for the blank sheet while Micklash stopped 30 shots in the loss.

With the victory, Saskatchewan claimed the 1-0 series lead.

(3)UBC at (2)SASKATCHEWAN - Game Two: It was do-or-die time for last year's U SPORTS bronze medalists as UBC had their backs against the wall on the road. Saskatchewan was trying to close out this series and advance to the Canada West Final the U SPORTS National Championship. This one was another early afternoon game thanks to the Saskatchewan men's team playing the night games against Calgary. UBC head coach Graham Thomas continued to swap his goalies just as he did in the previous series as Amelia Boughn got the call in this game for the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbirds came out much better than they did on the previous afternoon, and they were rewarded for the jump in their step midway through the period. With traffic in front of Jessica Vance, Alex Ranahan's point shot found its way through the maze of players and settled in the bottom left corner of the net, putting UBC up 1-0 at 10:38! Did UBC finally solve Jessica Vance and the stingy Saskatchewan defence? All that goal did, however, was spark the Huskies' attack, but they were unable to solve Boughn as the period ended. Despite trailing 11-9 in shots, UBC had the 1-0 lead after twenty minutes.

Saskatchewan came out more aggressive in the second period as they found ways to get the puck on Boughn. Ranahan, who gave the T-Birds the lead, would be sent to the sin bin for a bodychecking call just before the midpoint of the period, and the Huskies' power-play went to work. Kira Bannatyne found Kaitlin Willoughby with a pass, and Willoughby teed the puck up, lasering it through the five-hole of Boughn at 11:20 to even the game at 1-1! 3:16 after Willoughby's goal, Chloe Smith made her presence felt.
Smith's goal at 14:36 put the Huskies up 2-1 as UBC found themselves facing elimination if they couldn't solve Vance again. The final five minutes would tick off the clock with Saskatchewan still holding the one-goal lead, so it was twenty minutes or bust for the reigning U SPORTS bronze medalists.

UBC played desperation hockey through the final period. They had opportunities, but blocked shots and Jessica Vance were the story as they sacrificed bodies all over the ice to hold that slim lead. Despite getting ten chances through, UBC wouldn't find the back of the net past Vance, and the time expired on UBC's hopes of returning for a third-straight U SPORTS National Championship as Saskatchewan took Game Two by a 2-1 score. Vance was solid once again as she stopped 27 shots to help Saskatchewan advance while Boughn made 25 saves in the loss.

Saskatchewan wins the series 2-0 and advances to both the Canada West Championship Final and the U SPORTS National Championship.

(4)ALBERTA at (1)MANITOBA - Game One: The top-two ranked programs in the nation met in Winnipeg for their best-of-three series, and this one had all the makings of a memorable matchup at first glance. The statistics the teams posted throughout the year were near mirror images of each other, so how would this one play out?

The two teams came out and established a physical, tight-checking, up-tempo game. Not an inch was given on the ice until midway through the period. Courtlyn Oswald danced along the goal line out of the corner, beating a couple of Pandas, and got a shot on net that Kirsten Chamberlin stopped. The rebound she gave up, however, came out front where Mekaela Fisher was in perfect position, and she buried the rebound in the back of the net for her first Canada West playoff goal and, more importantly, the 1-0 Manitoba lead at 12:17!

That lead lasted all of 3:32 as the Pandas struck on a power-play. Deanna Morin fed Autumn MacDougall below the goal line to the left of Rachel Dyck, and MacDougall's centering pass missed its intended target. Instead, it was corralled by Taylor Kezama at the point, and she wristed a high shot on Rachel Dyck's left side past the screened goalie to even the game at 1-1 at 15:49! That score would hold through the remaining four minutes of the first period.

The second period saw chances at both ends, but Chamberlin and Dyck held their respective ground so we'd move to the third period. In what had been a physical chess match all game, a very late roughing call on Erica Rieder on what appeared to be nothing more than an accidental collision sent Alberta back to the power-play with 3:34 to play. And the Pandas would make the Bisons pay for this indiscretion. Abby Benning hit a wide-open Amy Boucher in the slot with a pass, and her low shot to the left corner had enough to get past Dyck for the 2-1 lead at 16:42! Add in a couple of empty-net goals by Regan Wright and Boucher with her second of the night, and Alberta takes Game One by a 4-1 score! Kirsten Chamberlin was spectacular in the Alberta net as she made 18 saves in the win while Rachel Dyck did everything should could for the Bisons in making 12 stops in the loss.

Alberta claims the 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.

(4)ALBERTA at (1)MANITOBA - Game Two: A familiar face for Bisons fans returned for Saturday's game as Venla Hovi was in uniform and on the ice after a 20-hour voyage from PyeongChang back to Winnipeg. Would her presence help the Bisons even the series in a do-or-die game for them?

Kirsten Chamberlin got her fourth-straight start of the playoffs while the Bisons sent Lauren Taraschuk to the blue paint as Jon Rempel was pulling out all the stops by starting his statistically-superior netminder. Both goaltenders were good early on as they denied chances in another extremely physical game, but Manitoba would find a goal late in the opening period despite there being some confusion as to who scored the goal!
It was eventually ruled that Sheridan Oswald's initial shot on net went in and out of the net off the inside crossbar past Chamberlin, and Manitoba owned a 1-0 lead with twenty seconds to play in the first period.

The second period was another chess match as the teams matched one another's moves. However, it took a special effort from one of the Pandas to even this game up. Alex Poznikoff exploded down the left wing and had a step on defender Erica Rieder. Despite giving up size to Rieder, Poznikoff fought the Manitoba rearguard off, shifted her weight to use her body to protect the puck, and jammed a backhand shot under Taraschuk with Rieder still all over her. The incredible individual effort at 10:48 pulled the Pandas even at 1-1! The two teams played a chippy second-half of the second period, but that 1-1 score would hold through to the third period with Alberta holding an 18-13 advantage in shots.

Manitoba tried to finish this game by being the more aggressive team in the third period, but Chamberlin was outstanding between the pipes to deny all the Manitoba chances. Taraschuk wasn't as busy, but she made key saves when called upon, so this game needed some extra time to find a winner. With next-goal-wins rules in play, this happened 11:42 into the extra time.
Courtlyn Oswald won the draw cleanly back to Alexandra Anderson, and the Manitoba defender wired a high shot past Chamberlin on the blocker side to give Manitoba the 2-1 overtime victory! Taraschuk stopped 21 shots and continued her streak of one-goal-or-less in the Manitoba win while Chamberlin suffered her first loss of the postseason despite making 22 saves.

With the win, Manitoba evens the series at 1-1 and forces a Game Three. Full highlights of this game can be seen below!

(4)ALBERTA at (1)MANITOBA - Game Three: Do or die. Win or go home. There would be no tomorrow for one of these two teams - the top-two teams in the nation - as Game Three got underway. Just like in Game Two, the Pandas would send Kirsten Chamberlin to the net while Manitoba went back to Lauren Taraschuk after she recorded the overtime win the night before. Only one can advance. Who would it be?

Alberta absolutely dominated the opening period, outshooting the Bisons 12-2, and they seemed to be a step faster than the Bisons. Their domination was met head-on by Lauren Taraschuk who surrendered nothing, but it had a few people in the pressbox concerned about how this game was progressing. Nevertheless, it was 0-0 after one period.

The tables were turned in the second period as Manitoba controlled the play for large portions of time and re-established their offensive game in outshooting Alberta 9-2. Chamberlin showed no fear, however, as she denied all Manitoba chances, and this game would move to the third period as a scoreless draw.

Both teams played slightly more cautious in the third period, but each side had chances. Alberta's Amy Boucher ripped a shot off the crossbar on a power-play while Lauryn Keen rang a puck off the post for Manitoba. However, neither team would light the lamp in the third period, so we'd need extra time to find this game's first and, ultimately, game-winning goal.

Manitoba seemed to be gaining strength as the first overtime period wore on, but they still could not put a puck by Chamberlin. The game would move to a second overtime period where Amy Boucher poke-checked a Bisons player while on the penalty kill, and she had a clear-cut breakaway from center ice. She broke in on Taraschuk, went forehand-backhand to get the Bisons netminder to go down, but she ran out of real estate as her backhanded shot hit the outside of the post and stayed out! We'd press on!

It appeared Manitoba scored on a wild scramble in front of the Alberta net late in double-overtime, but the referee behind the net ruled that her whistle had gone in losing sight of the puck despite the puck sitting under a Panda defender inside the net! With the goal waved off, we'd go to a third overtime period still tied 0-0!

Manitoba looked like the stronger team in the third overtime period as they seemed to have more gas in the tank when it came to their skating legs, but Chamberlin rejected the Bisons' chances once again. As we began discussing the possibility of another five-overtime game like Manitoba and Saskatchewan played just two years ago, we'd move to the fourth overtime period with the horn sounding the end of the third extra frame.

Manitoba once again turned up the intensity in this overtime period, peppering Chamberlin with shots at every chance they got. I'm not sure if Coach Rempel had informed his team that anything towards the net has a chance to be a game-winner, but Manitoba was certainly testing that theory. And then at 13:30 of the fourth extra frame, this happened.
Cassidy Dankochik with one of the more epic calls in his broadcasting career as Venla Hovi picked up a loose puck on the half-boards, skated it into the middle of the ice, spotted a wide-open Jordyn Zacharias with a hard pass, and Zacharias deflected the puck up and over Chamberlin's left pad and into the net for the 1-0 win in the fourth overtime period!

Here's another view from, and you can see that Kiara MacHry cheated up on the Venla Hovi shot, leaving Jody Zacharias wide-open to the left of Chamberlin where Hovi would spot her.
Zacharias' goal at 13:30 was the game- and series-winning goal as Manitoba eliminates the Alberta Pandas! Taraschuk picks up the longest shutout in her career as she stopped all 31 shots she faced while Chamberlin suffers a second-straight overtime loss despite stopping 35 shots.

With the win, Manitoba wins the series and advances to both the Canada West Championship Final and the U SPORTS National Championship. Manitoba will host the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Canada West Final starting on March 2 in a best-of-three series that will determined the Canada West Champion!

The Final Word

For the first time since that epic five-overtime game, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will meet in the Canada West playoffs. Saskatchewan's win over UBC not only eliminated the fifth-ranked team in the nation, but also eliminated the reigning bronze medalist and the 2016 silver medalist from advancing to the U SPORTS National Championship once again. Manitoba's win over Alberta eliminated the reigning gold medalist and the second-ranked team in the nation. In other words, some giants fell this past weekend when it comes to Canada's best teams.

Saskatchewan will bring Canada West's best team defence and quite possibly the nation's best goaltender to Winnipeg for a battle with Canada West's best team goal differential and quite possibly the nation's top rookie. Jessica Vance, once a Bison, returns with the Huskies where she has posted ten shutouts in twenty games while posting the conference's best save percentage. Lauren Taraschuk owns the conference's best goals-against average for both the regular season and the playoffs and has the best save percentage in the playoffs by .001 over Vance. This series may very well be decided on which goaltender flinches first!

However, let's take a moment of reflection before we start predicting the future. The fact that the top-two teams in the nation faced one another in the Canada West Semi-Final seemed a little unfair. Not only was Alberta every bit as good as Manitoba, but they literally fell one goal short of advancing if you take away the two empty-net goals that they scored. Manitoba and Alberta battled to a 3-3 series over 14 periods before Manitoba won the series on the Zacharias goal. The fact that Alberta is forced to go home after this war of a series is the most unfair part of having four dominant teams in Canada West, any of which would have been an exemplary representative of just how hard it is to advance out of the conference.

We were treated to incredible hockey over the weekend with Alberta in town, and there is nothing that they should hang their heads over. Alberta and Manitoba wrote another chapter into their histories with this epic series, and I suspect both teams will write more chapters in the future. Be proud, Alberta Pandas, for you didn't lose this series as much as only one team was able to win this series. You may have fallen short, but your efforts won't be forgotten. If one is required to beat the best to be the best, you should be honoured to know that we, in Manitoba, considered you to be the best when it came to beating you.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan will play for the Canada West Championship this weekend. Be prepared for another war at Wayne Fleming Arena. We may have to rename Wayne Fleming Arena as the "Flavian Amphitheatre" after this weekend if the gladiatorial battles we witnessed last weekend continue this weekend. As hockey fans, how lucky can we be in getting another series like the one we just witnessed?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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