Sunday, 19 March 2017

The West Emerges

I had been saying for weeks since they eliminated the Manitoba Bisons that the Alberta Pandas looked like the best team in the nation. Granted, my watching of OUA, RSEQ, and AUS teams was significantly less than what I had seen from Canada West, but the Pandas threw a 14-game winning streak up before dropping a pair of games to the UBC Thunderbirds - the top-ranked team in the nation - in the Canada West Final. With their appearance there, the Pandas would garner an invitation to the USports Women's Hockey Championship in Napanee, Ontario where they had a chance to shock the world. Well, everyone except their fans and me, apparently.

It was hard to deny that the best team in the second-half of the Canada West season wasn't the Alberta Pandas. While the UBC Thunderbirds jumped out to the big lead, it's never how you start the season, but only how you finish. The Pandas and Thunderbirds used all three games to determine a Canada West Champion, but the Pandas wouldn't be deterred by a Game Three loss when a bigger championship stood before them.

It would be in Napanee where the two Canada West teams began their assault on the other six teams. On Thursday, UBC moved on to the semi-final round with a 2-1 victory over the hosts from Queen's University after a late Nicole Saxvik goal put them ahead. On Friday, Alberta scored a pair of second-period goals from Amy Boucher and Cayle Dillon before surviving late pressure from the St. Mary's Huskies to advance on a 2-1 victory as well. Four teams advanced, and both Canada West teams were still in the hunt.

The first semi-final game would pit the Thunderbirds against the McGill Martlets. This game had a little bit of everything - great defence, incredible goaltending, chances for both teams, and some good pace. However, a late goal by Gabrielle Davidson with 2:29 remaining in the game was all the scoring needed as the Martlets upset the top-ranked team in the nation to advance to the final on the strength of a 1-0 victory. UBC's dream of returning to the championship game would end, but they would still have a medal opportunity as they'd play for the bronze medal on Sunday.

Alberta, however, caught a significant break when the underdog Concordia Stingers downed the Guelph Gryphons in their quarterfinal game the day before. The upstart Stingers wouldn't just roll over for the Pandas, so Alberta would need to bring a solid game once again. Concordia jumped out to a lead just 19 seconds in when Claudia Dubois scored. Alex Poznikoff would pull the Pandas even at 9:24 while on the power-play, but Marie-Joelle Allard would restore the one-goal lead just 35 seconds after the Alberta goal, and the Stingers would carry the 2-1 lead into the intermission.

While some eyebrows were raised after the opening frame, Alberta head coach Howie Draper had no time for surprise as he took his troops into the dressing room, drew up some changes, and the Pandas came out like the dominant team they were through the second-half of the Canada West season. Five consecutive goals later, and the Pandas booked their ticket to the USports National Women's Hockey Final with an impressive 6-2 victory over Concordia in which they limited the Stingers to just six shots over the last 40 minutes of play. Needless to say, that suffocating defence that the Pandas had played since January now had them in the biggest game of the season!

Before we get there, though, we had a bronze medal game to play as the Concordia Stingers of the RSEQ met Canada West's UBC Thunderbirds! Could Concordia have one more upset in its bag of tricks or would the nation's top team rally back from a heartbreaking defeat? Well, it turns out that the T-Birds had just enough gas left in the tank. A first-period goal by Cassandra Vilgrain at 17:42 on the power-play put UBC out in front, and they iced it almost 40 minutes later when Logan Boyd added a second power-play goal at 17:23 of the third period. Amelia Boughn stopped everything that the Stingers threw her way in backing the Thunderbirds to the bronze medal in a 2-0 win!

After earning a silver medal last season, the Thunderbirds close out this season with another medal and a win to give Canada West the third-place podium finish. Would Canada West finish atop the podium or with a second-straight silver medal as Alberta geared up to play McGill in the championship final?

It took until the second period, but that tenacious Alberta defence and solid transition game finally broke through when Amy Boucher used a defenceman as a screen and snapped a shot past McGill's Tricia Deguire on the far side to put Alberta up 1-0 at 17:38 of the middle frame. Alberta, who has had no worry when holding a one-goal lead, gave up a power-play early in the third period, and McGill would capitalize when Melodie Daoust fired home a cross-crease pass from Olivia Atkinson to even the game at 1-1 at the 3:15 mark of the third period.

From there, both Deguire and Alberta's Lindsey Post took over and denied chance after chance through to the end of the third period with neither goaltender giving an inch in the 1-1 tie. Despite McGill scoring on one of their twelve shots in the third period, the two teams would go to overtime where they would continue the battle. And once more, the goaltenders stood tall as Deguire stopped all four shots from the Pandas in the extra frame while Post would stop the three shots sent her way. And once more, we'd need to roll into another period!

Double-overtime saw Alberta go down a man early as Morgan Kelly was whistled for hooking at 1:06, but the Pandas weathered the storm with Post making a couple of key saves to preserve the tie. It wouldn't be longer after, though, where we'd finally crown a winner. Taylor Kezama's shot ricocheted off the foot of a Martlets defenceman and found its way past Deguire at 8:13 to give the Pandas the USports National Women's Hockey Championship and Alberta's eighth national title in 20 years!

"It didn't feel real at first, I was like, 'did this go in?'," Kezama said with excitement post-game. "My excitement level went through the roof. It's the most amazing feeling I've ever had in my life."

Alberta gives Canada West two wins on Championship Sunday as the Pandas captured the gold medal while the UBC Thunderbirds captured the bronze medal. Canada West featured three of the top-six teams at the end of the season, and had a number of teams move up and down the Top-Ten standings all year. There will be changes next season for both teams as a number of players are graduating, but no one can take these victories from these women.

Congratulations to the UBC Thunderbirds on their bronze-medal performance! And congratulations to the Alberta Pandas for winning this nation's highest honour for university hockey players as they are the 2016-17 USports National Women's Hockey Champions! It should make for an exciting Canada West season next year!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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