Friday, 15 March 2019

It Ends Quickly

George S. Patton Jr. is notable for his quote, "All glory is fleeting." His reference was in regards to Roman generals of their armies who conquered lands across Europe and Asia while having parades and luxuries showered on them for their successes under Rome's watch, and the same can be said for hockey teams who conquer the Canadian hockey landscape each year at the U SPORTS National Championship. Manitoba, who entered the tournament as the defending champions, saw their reign over Canadian university hockey come to an end today at the hands of the Guelph Gryphons who capitalized on mistakes to send the defending champions to the consolation side of the tournament.

By the time yesterday's game was two minutes old, Guelph held a 2-0 lead over the Bisons thanks to a rebound that Lauren Taraschuk couldn't corral and a screened shot that she simply could not see. On the first goal, the Gryphons got to the loose puck first as they won the battle in front of the net, and the second goal was simply the Bisons not clearing the front of the net nor defending the slot area from where the shot occurred. While some may say that this was simply Guelph being more hungry than the Bisons, these are issues that have plagued the Bisons for the better part of a month, if not longer.

Through the next 17 minutes, one could be excused if one thought that MacLaughlan Arena was built on the side of a hill as the Bisons seemed to be skating uphill the entire period while the puck regularly found its way with ease into the Bisons' zone. Time and time again, the Gryphons had relatively unchallenged zone entries while finding places to get quality shots on Taraschuk. Had it not been for Manitoba's goaltender, this game likely would have been out of reach long before the first intermission was a reality.

And had it not been for a late push in the period where Alanna Sharman had been double-shifted and found herself on a line with Erin Kucheravy and Emilie Massé, there wasn't much to cheer for if one is a Bisons fan. However, Sharman carried the puck into the zone, circled in the corner before throwing a pass out front that went by everyone before Megan Neduzak wired a wrist shot that Guelph's Valerie Lamenta got a piece of, but couldn't cover. Sharman went to the net after passing the puck, and she was in the right spot to sweep the puck across the line as Lamenta scrambled to smother the puck, and the Bisons somehow went into the intermission down just one goal despite being thoroughly and wholly outplayed for 19:30 of the opening 20 minutes.

Sharman was back at it early in the second period when Sheridan Oswald spotted an open Sharman on the right wing, and the smooth-skating Sharman broke in on Lamenta alone, made a quick move to get the goalie moving, and went bar-down with a shot that had the entire crowd buzzing as Manitoba tied the game just 1:02 into the frame. Suddenly, there was renewed optimism for the Manitoba fans who made the trip to Charlottetown!

The Bisons, who had looked like they had never played a period of hockey in the first period, erased all of that with a second period where they were the more aggressive team, played stouter defence in preventing the Gryphons from getting to high-danger scoring areas, and had a number of chances in the period to take their first lead of the game, but Lamenta was equal to the task after being beaten twice. Manitoba and Guelph would move to the third period with both teams looking for the go-ahead marker.

The third period started off a little more cautiously for both sides, but a giveaway in the Manitoba zone led to a Nicole MacKinnon shot that Taraschuk got a part of, but not all of, as the puck fluttered off her and into the net to give Guelph a 3-2 at the 5:53 mark. From there, Guelph went into a trap and played some ultra-defensive hockey in keeping the Bisons out of their zone and the puck as far away from Lamenta as possible. And this is where an entire season can be defined as the final four minutes of this game were nothing short of confusing.

Down one goal, we kept looking for the bench to signal Lauren Taraschuk. It never came.

Down one goal, we kept looking for a shorter bench. It never happened.

Down one goal, we expected to see Manitoba's best players playing together. It didn't occur.

I struggled to understand what was happening on the Manitoba bench. Guelph continued to roll its best players out onto the ice to try and protect the lead, yet Manitoba was still rolling four lines and three defensive pairings as the precious seconds ticked off the clock. With under two minutes remaining, Manitoba called a time-out - perhaps their best chance to assemble their most formidable six-woman offensive unit with Taraschuk on the bench - but they returned Taraschuk to the net and struggled to get the puck into the offensive zone. With under one minute to play, the puck finally was put into the Gryphons' zone on a dump-and-chase, and Taraschuk went to the bench for the extra attacker.

Desperation mode was never truly put into place for this Bisons team as they couldn't break through the Gryphons' impenetrable trap in the neutral zone for the majority of the remaining minute, and pucks that did go in deep were easily recovered by the Gryphons and sent out of the zone with little danger to Lamenta.

When the final horn sounded, the OUA champions had dethroned the defending national champions by a 3-2 score in a game where Manitoba certainly had opportunities to score more than two goals, but had to dig themselves out of an early hole by not being ready to play. Had the Bisons put forth the effort seen through the second period and the majority of the third period, this entire article would be moot as there would still be concerns about the team's play, but winning would prevent the microscopes from a hard examination of where things went wrong.

While there was a lot that was right with this game, the first 19:30 of the game and the final four minutes of this game were perplexing and frustrating when it came to correcting errors and finding ways to win in real-time at the biggest tournament of the year. And because of that, there will be no new hardware to display at Wayne Fleming Arena next season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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