Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The First Mile Of The Highway

It's hard to imagine that an expansion team can win in their very first season, but the University of New Brunswick Reds are defying logic by not only winning in the regular season, but they've now booked their tickets for the semifinal round of the AUS playoffs in winning their quarterfinal series against the UPEI Panthers! Everything at the outset of the season would have suggested that UNB was under some serious disadvantages - lack of cohesion amongst players, new coaching staff and tactics to which they'd have to adapt, new school, new province for some - that could affect their on-ice play. After last night's win against UPEI, though, I'd say all those disadvantages are not only moot, but may have actually worked in bringing the team closer together faster.

The coaching staff of Sarah Hilworth, Brittany Esposito, and Pamela Pachal have worked extremely hard since Hilworth was first introduced to the public as the new captain of this ship. Hilworth used her connections in western Canada to recruit a handful of highly-skilled players such as leading scorer Tamina Kehler (Chilliwack, BC) and goaltender Kendra Woodland (Kamloops, BC) upon which she built the foundation of her team. Esposito is a former CWHL star with the Calgary Inferno and NCAA star with Northeastern University, so she's got some big-game experience she can pass on to the UNB athletes. Pamela Pachal played in the old National Women's Hockey League with the Durham Lightning and she won an NCAA championship at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, so she too has all sorts of experience to pass on to these women.

Woodland, it should be noted, is a likely candidate for AUS Rookie of the Year as she leads the AUS in save percentage (.945) and is fourth-best in goals-against average (1.70) while playing the fifth-most minutes of all AUS goalies this season.

Surrounding a few key recruits that Hilworth targeted, she added some local, high-end flavor from the Maritimes with Ashley Stratton (Mount Pearl, NL), third-year forward Hayley Hallihan (Miramichi, NB), and senior Jennifer Bell (Miramichi, NB) while filling out the rest of the roster with a multi-provincial mix of young women who have a mix of skills and character that Hilworth sought in her team. In total, 17 freshman are on the UNB roster, and they went out and played their tails off to finish in fourth-place in the regular season and, now, at least fourth-best in the conference!

Tuesday night, that plucky team of freshmen decided to make thing a little more exciting as they rallied from behind to take Game Two in their quarterfinal series against UPEI. Emma Borbandy (Langdon, AB) scored a power-play goal with 1:54 remaining to tie the game at 3-3 before Tamina Kehler buried the series-clinching goal with 27 seconds to play! Woodrose stopped 35 shots on the night after UPEI had outshot UNB 38-15 in the game.

In Game One, UNB raced out to a 3-0 lead through 27 minutes of play, and held on to win 3-2 after surrendering a couple of power-play goals in the third period. Woodrose made 28 saves in the win on that night as well.

The UNB Reds will now face the St. Thomas Tommies with Game One going on Saturday night. UNB is 1-2-1 against St. Thomas this year, but the difference between the two teams is larger than that head-to-head stat may lead you to believe. St. Thomas went 22-5-1 this year, finishing 15 points ahead of UNB in first-place and six points better than second-place StFX. They scored 30 more goals than UNB this season and gave up nine less, so there is a talent difference between these two squads as well.

Most notably, though, St. Thomas only has three freshmen and has seven seniors.

Why is that important? UNB is already playing some inspired hockey with 17 freshmen. This was a season where they worked to put themselves on the map regionally in the AUS and, possibly, nationally in U SPORTS. This is a season where UNB not only reignited a passion for women's hockey in the region, but began building its own legacy alongside a highly-dominant men's program.

Not all 17 freshmen will finish their careers as a five-year senior. Good players will be recruited and may push some of these players to the periphery where they'll choose to follow academics and leave their athletic pursuit. It happens at every campus across the nation - this isn't new. But if two-thirds of those 17 freshmen make their way through three more seasons to senior year, imagine how good this UNB squad may be after playing together, working together, winning together, losing together, and, ultimately, growing together for five seasons.

Honestly, it gives me chills just thinking about it.

The fact that they're already an AUS semifinalist in a year where many had said they'd simply find their footing in the AUS is a sign of the amazing work being done by the coaching staff and these young ladies. They started the season 0-3-1 before rattling off four-straight wins. They played streaky hockey all season - trademarks of a young team - to finish with a 13-11-4 record. But they gained valuable experience, learned important lessons, and took necessary steps to be better - all vitally important checkpoints they likely wouldn't have reached in their first year had they suited up at another university and certainly not among 17 freshmen who are doing this together.

It's that togetherness that will allow this team to ascend to new heights as they get older, get stronger, and play better. This first mile of highway that UNB has installed will pave the way for this program to be a national championship favorite in upcoming years. Doing well in one season is the first step in having this program not only restored to its former glory, but having this program eclipse everything the old UNB program did.

These women are doing something that very few athletes at the U SPORTS level get to do in today's day and age: they're forging a new path for the generations of women who will follow them. And while they're likely all living in the moment of a playoff win and preparation for the semifinal series against St. Thomas, they're part of something so much bigger that they can't even see yet.

How cool is that?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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