Sunday 18 February 2024

The Rundown - Quarterfinals

Canada West moved into postseason territory this week as two teams travelled, two teams hosted, and two teams prepared for next week's semifinal series. Weekend series moved to three games, if necessary, and two losses would mean the end of the season for those teams who were handed a pair of setbacks. Four teams would decide who's advancing to the semifinals next weekend, so let's find out who's moving on and who's going home this week on The Rundown!

Before we get to the games, here's a quick reminder of the brackets.
UBC and Alberta await the winners of the series between Manitoba-MRU and Calgary-Saskatchewan. We're off to Calgary and Saskatoon for this week's quarterfinal recaps, so let's get started!

The sixth-seeded Manitoba Bisons travelled to Calgary for their quarterfinal series with the third-seeded Mount Royal Cougars. Mount Royal held the edge in this series in virtually all statistical comparisons, and they were 3-0-1-0 this season against the Bisons, outscoring them 17-7. There's a reason why the games are played, though, as Emily Shippam was in net for the Bisons while Kaitlyn Ross was in the blue paint for the Cougars.

Having home-ice advantage helps in the playoffs, and the Cougars were able to get the matchups they wanted. They controlled the pace for a majority of the first period, but couldn't find the back of the net in the early-going of this contest. That changed midway through the period, however, when Kiana McNinch picked up a puck in the Manitoba zone, got past the defence, and zipped a shot past Shippam for the 1-0 lead at 10:24. The Bisons had a few chances in the opening period, but Ross and the Cougars' defence were on their games as the first period came to a close with the 1-0 lead intact for Mount Royal while holding a 9-6 edge in shots.

The second period saw Manitoba find all sorts of ways to get pucks on net, but Ross was having none of it as she continued to keep the Bisons off the board. The Cougars would increase their lead at 5:17 when Jerzey Watteyne dented twine to make it 2-0 for Mount Royal, and that seemed to open the flood gates. Athena Hauck made it 3-0 at 7:01 as she capitalized on a scoring chance, and Manitoba would miss out on a power-play opportunity minutes later to try and close the gap. Late in the frame, Jordyn Hutt added the fourth Mount Royal goal at 17:41, and the Cougars carried the 4-0 lead into the break despite being outshot 22-17.

If it seemed like a four-goal lead might be difficult to overcome, it was quickly a five-goal lead as Aliya Jomha scored 25 seconds into the final frame. Manitoba would whistled for a penalty a few moments later, and that lead become a half-dozen when Allee Gerrard scored on the power-play at 3:29 to end Shippam's night. From there, Mount Royal simply played shutdown hockey as Manitoba was given very little room to operate and very few opportunities to score. When the final horn sounded, the Cougars's national championship defence had started with a 6-0 win over the Bisons. Kaitlyn Ross picked up the win with her 27-save shutout while Emily Shippam made 17 stops on 23 shots in 43:29 of work. Meagan Relf stopped the only two shots she faced in her 16:31 of relief work in the third period.

Mount Royal now leads the series 1-0 over Manitoba.

It's hard to get excited for a championship defence when you can't catch highlights of that team mounting a defence. For a school that has taken such pride in its women's hockey program, it's hard to defend the lack of highlights posted anywhere. It's almost as if...

Manitoba's playoff lives were on the line in Saturday's Game Two contest after the Cougars dominated on the scoreboard in Game One. Obviously, Mount Royal knows what it takes to win, so they were looking to close out this quarterfinal series to begin preparing for their semifinal matchup. Manitoba needed a big effort on Saturday, so would we see a Game Three? In a rematch from the night before, Emily Shippam was between the Manitoba pipes while Kaitlyn Ross took her familiar spot in the Mount Royal net.

Manitoba came out focused in this one as they looked to break the shutout streak that Ross was building. They got an opportunity early on the power-play, but Mount Royal killed the advantage. Mount Royal would get the next power-play just before the midway point of the period, and Aliya Jomha made it hurt for the Bisons when she cashed in her second goal of the weekend at 10:31 to put the Cougars up by a goal. The teams would trade unsuccessful power-plays in the latter half of the period, and we'd hit the break with the same score as Friday showed after 20 minutes as Mount Royal was up 1-0 despite Manitoba outshooting the Cougars by a 12-9 count.

The second period started with a quick strike as Brenna Nicol caught the Cougars in a line change, and she sniped Manitoba's first goal of the series at 1:18 to even this game at 1-1. With the teams tied, they continued to play a fairly-even period. Manitoba, though was whistled for a penalty prior to the midway point of the frame which they'd kill, but, seconds after the penalty expired and with Mount Royal pressuring, Emma Bergesen found just enough room past Shippam at 11:41 to make it 2-1 for Mount Royal. A late power-play for Mount Royal wouldn't see anything added to their total, but the Cougars were 20 minutes from advancing as they held a 2-1 lead despite being outshot by 21-17 by Manitoba.

throughout The Cougars came out of the gates with fire in their skates in the third period as they had a pile of scoring opportunities throughout the period. The catch? They capitalized on them. Julia Duke punched her first Canada West power-play goal past Shippam at 6:51, Sydney Benko may have hammered home the proverbial nail in the coffin at 12:30, and Athena Hauck added her second goal at 18:21 to crush any hope of a miracle comeback as the Mount Royal Cougars eliminated the Bisons with a 5-1 Game Two victory. Kaitlyn Ross picked up second win with another 27-save night while Emily Shippam made 26 stops in her final game of the season.

Mount Royal eliminates Manitoba in a 2-0 sweep, and they will move on to the semifinal in Edmonton due to seedings.

It sure would be nice to see a group goalie hug or a spectacular goal or something positive from Mount Royal this season. With Mount Royal heading out on the road, highlights won't be seen this season. At all.

The fifth-seeded Calgary Dinos headed northeast to Saskatoon for their quarterfinals series with the fourth-seeded Saskatchewan Huskies. The teams actually tied their season series at 1-1 this year, but those games were played in Calgary at Father David Bauer Arena where the Huskies outscored the Dinos 5-4 in that two-game series. The Dinos scored a few more goals this season than Saskatchewan while the Huskies were clearly the better defensive team, and we're told that defence wins championships. Would that long-helf playoff belief prove true in this series? Gabriella Durante was in the Calgary net while Camryn Drever was guarding the Huskies' cage as this series got underway on Friday afternoon.

In a period that was played mostly north-south with a number of shots on both sides, it was Saskatchewan who would gain the upper hand early in this game when Mallory Dyer dented twine just 3:12 into the opening frame to put the Huskies up 1-0. Despite being stated in the opening paragraph, defence and goaltending was on display for both sides in a period that featured 25 shots including a breakaway save made by Durante. A late power-play for Saskatchewan didn't help their cause on the scoreboard, but they had drawn first blood at the break with the 1-0 lead despite Calgary holding a 14-11 edge in shots.

The second period saw some of the rough stuff enter the frame as these two teams developed some hostilities. An early Saskatchewan power-play didn't help for power-play goals, but they would find the back of the net seconds after the penalty expired. Kendra Zuchotzki crept into the slot where Sophie Lalor spotted her, and Zuchotzki buried the goal at 7:16 for the 2-0 lead. From the midpoint of this period on, there were shortened power-plays for each side thanks to infractions taken while on advantages, but those would help neither team as the Huskies were up by a pair of goals at the second intermission with Calgary holding a 23-21 shot count.

Saskatchewan settled into their lock-down routine in the third period as they looked to keep shots to the outside and prevent scoring chances, and it seemed to work until the middle of the frame. Kate Wagner's shot at 9:21 found space past Drever to end up behind her, and that pulled the Dinos within one goal. The Huskies, however, would weather than storm and prevent any further damage being done as they claimed the victory in Game One over Calgary by that 2-1 score. Camryn Drever made 30 saves for the playoff win while Gabriella Durante stopped 22 shots in the setback.

Saskatchewan now leads the series 1-0 over Calgary.

The Huskies also don't do highlights of wins, goals, saves, or anything else of note on their way to hosting the National Championship. Maybe they're trying to keep their systems and players as a secret?

Calgary came into Saturday's game in must-win mode or their season was over. The Huskies were looking to close out this series so they could prepare for the semifinals. Could Calgary swing the momentum and send this series to a Game Three? Gabriella Durante was defending the Calgary cage while Camryn Drever was back in the Saskatchewan crease for the rematch.

This one didn't take long to find a scorer as Calgary broke the initial Saskatchewan drive of the game out of their zone where Sydney Mercier hit Elizabeth Lang with a pass at the Huskies blue line while gaining a step on a defender. When Lang returned the pass, Mercier was in alone and she went glove-side where Drever got some of, but not all of, the puck before it came to rest in the Huskies' net as the Dinos grabbed the 1-0 lead just 22 seconds into the game! Calgary got into a little penalty troublea short time later, but they'd escape those penalties unscathed. A Saskatchewan penalty would be killed off as well, and that early goal stood as the difference as the Dinos took the 1-0 lead into the break while the Huskies held a 9-6 edge in shots.

The second period was more of a defensive struggle, but the Huskies did generate more shots on net. The Calgary defence was up to the task, though, and anything that got through bounced of Durante as they, in combination, were holding that one-goal lead. A Saskatchewan penalty later in the period gave the Dinos a spark, though, as Brooklin Fry pushed the puck up the ice, dropped it off to Lang who threw it on net, and Fry drove the net to find the loose puck in the crease and sweep it home for the 2-0 lead on her first Canada West goal! A later penalty on Fry didn't hurt the Dinos, and we'd hit the second break with Calgary leading 2-0 while Saskatchewan held a 19-12 shot margin.

The third period saw the Dinos turn on the defensive play as Saskatchewan turned up the heat. An early power-play for the Huskies was killed by the Dinos, and they worked to limit scoring opportunities through the remainder of the frame. A Huskies penalty later in the period didn't help the Dinos, but it didn't matter when the final horn sounded as the Calgary Dinos forced a Game Three with a 2-0 win over the Saskatchewan Huskies! Gabriella Durante earned her first Canada West playoff win and shutout with a 28-shot clean sheet while Camryn Drever was on the wrong end of a 14-save effort.

With the Calgary win, the series is tied 1-1 with Game Three scheduled for 2pm CT on Sunday!

Saskatchewan's lack of highlight reels is well-known around these parts, but the Dinos decided to do something radical and post their highlights to Instagram. No, I am not linking Instagram videos on this blog. Forcing people to go out and search for your highlights is pretty dumb, so I'll let Mr. Chetty from The Internship sum up how I feel about the efforts from these teams to produce one highlight reel.

Sunday was win-or-go-home day for both the Dinos and Huskies. Whoever won today's game would move on to a semifinal series while the losing squad would go home, lick their wounds, and wonder how things got away from them. One game to decide next week's plans, so who would prevail? Round Three of Gabriella Durante in the Calgary net against Camryn Drever in the Saskatchewan crease went Sunday afternoon!

Neither side was interesting in wasting much time establishing their offensive game as shots and chances were seen at both ends of the ice. A power-play midway through the period for the Huskies produced nothing of note, but a Calgary power-play shortly thereafter would see the scoreboard change. Dana Wood's low shot from the right half-boards was partially-deflected by Kyla Mitenko, but it went across the crease to where Josie McLeod had positioned herself, and she popped the puck past Drever before she could get in position as the Dinos took the 1-0 lead at the 15:00 mark. That would be all the lamps that were lit in the opening frame as Calgary took the one-goal lead to the room despite being outshot 14-11.

An early power-play was awarded to the Huskies, but they would come away with nothing once more. This period was played more defensively as the teams slowed things up, but we'd see another goal off a transition. After the Dinos cleared the puck up the boards, Elizabeth Lang hit Courtney Kollman with a pass just inside the Saskatchewan blue line, and she broke in alone before going five-hole on Drever to make it a 2-0 game at 11:34. Despite a much lower shot total, that two-goal lead in favour of Calgary would be the difference at the second intermission despite Saskatchewan holding a 21-17 advantage on the shot counter.

Saskatchewan was forced to kill off an early penalty in the final frame before they ramped up their offence, but the Dinos were defending well. Shot after shot was turned aside by Durante despite Saskatchewan's persistence, and the Dinos did a good job at preventing second chances from hurting them. As time became the enemy, the Huskies pressed with the extra attacked for 2:24, but they could not solve the wall named Durante on this day as the Calgary Dinos defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies 2-0 for the second night in a row, eliminating them from the Canada West playoffs. Gabriella Durante picked up her second win and shutout with a 31-save night while Camryn Drever's final Canada West game saw her make 22 saves. Just for the record, Gabriella Durante's shutout streak is currently sitting at 152:44 as she'll get ready for next week.

Calgary eliminates Saskatchewan in three games, and they will move on to the semifinal in Vancouver due to seedings.

Calgary's highlights are on Instagram, but this is the only GIF that seems appropriate as I'm sure they'll enjoy their day off tomorrow.

The Bracket

Here is the updated bracket with scheduled game times.
It should be noted that those times for the Calgary-UBC series are for the Pacific Time Zone while the Mount Royal-Alberta series is for the Mountain Time Zone. If you're doing the math, you can essentially watch Canada West women's hockey playoffs next week Friday and Saturday for five-straight hours. That's not a bad way to spend two evenings if you're cheering on these teams and players!

What we do know is that there will be at least one Alberta-based team competing for the lone berth at the U SPORTS National Championship when it comes to who will make the Canada West final. We also know that UBC, as long as they're still playing, will have home-ice advantage. It will be interesting to see how these two series play out, but don't think that UBC doesn't have November 24, 2023 written on a whiteboard somewhere. That was the night that Calgary defeated them 3-2 at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre for their only regulation loss this season.

The Trend

I know I throw stats out on this article all the time, but this one might be important for the remaining teams to remember: every team that scored first this weekend won its respective games. I preach about how important scoring first in Canada West is, but this weekend saw those teams that hit scoreboard first go 5-0 in the biggest games of those teams' seasons. Say what you want about stats meaning nothing in the playoffs, but you have to score to win games.

Clearly, getting that first one matters.

The Power Outage

I can honestly tell you that the Saskatchewan Huskies never expected to be watching from the sidelines at the point in the playoffs, but they're here because they scored just two goals in 180 minutes of play. Clearly, that's a problem for the Huskies that they need to solve, but the oh-fer-12 they put up on the power-play should have alarm bells going off at Merlis Belsher Place.

I have repeatedly said on this space how important special teams are when it comes to winning games in Canada West, and we saw that come to light this weekend as the Dinos scored two power-play goals on their eight opportunities, and they scored both goals in the final two games of the series. If the Huskies had scored on half of their four power-play opportunities in Game Two, we might be talking about an overtime result as opposed to being shut out. Instead, the Huskies failed to score in their two closeout games and are now watching from home.

Moral of the story: take advantage of the advantages you're given!

The Wait

Saskatchewan now has some time to work on that power-play because their season isn't quite over yet. As you know, the Huskies are hosting the U SPORTS National Women's Hockey Championship from March 14-17, and it's almost assured that they'll be the eighth-seeded team at the tournament after their early exit from the Canada West picture. Unless there are some massive upsets in the OUA or RSEQ, the Huskies are going to have to duplicate Mount Royal's run from last season if they want to wear gold medals.

With 25 days to get themselves ready and zero meaningful games between now and then, it'll be interesting to see how they play in that first game on March 14 when they take the ice.

The Fallacy

I've been outspoken about how much I hate the U SPORTS ranking system because it literally makes no sense when it comes to how teams earn points, but I'm annoyed at this point because there are some who are making the assumption that the Concordia Stingers may be the favorites when Nationals start assuming they earn one of the RSEQ berths. Yes, the Stingers are good and they just posted a 25-0-0 season, but seeing stuff like serves no purpose.
The closest team in the standings to Concordia was the 16-9-0 Bishop's Gaiters who made an appearance in the top-ten this week, but weren't there last week. How they made the top-ten is a bit of a mystery, but, as stated above, the math makes zero sense and the point totals for teams have zero relevance.

Is Concordia a good team? Absolutely, and I have no doubt they'll be a tough out if they make the National Championship. However, seeing three 20-win Canada West teams and three 20-win OUA teams in the top-ten listing means there will be three very good teams - two from Canada West and one from the OUA - who don't play in Saskatoon. The teams that survive might be better prepared for the level of competition required to win than Concordia after they played weaker teams all season long.

Or Concordia could show up and crush everyone as the top-seeded team in the nation. And that's why we play the games.

The Last Word

There will be playoff previews for these two series on each of the team sites, so I'm not going to jump into prognostications or prediction here. Instead, congratulations go to the winners who live to play another day, preparations will begin for the one losing team who will play in March, and the other team who failed to win has a pile of stuff to figure out before the 2024-25 season begins.

What should be discussed is the "divisional" setup that Canada West is going to try next season which will only weaken the overall level of competition that we see as some very good teams will only meet twice per season now rather than having their four-game season series. Frankly, Canada West could solve this problem if they started to apply pressure on one specific institution to join Canada West, but we know that Canada West has the same leverage as I do when it comes to making the sports they oversee better.

Of course, this will also be the last season of the six-team RSEQ before Ottawa and Carleton move to the OUA in 2024-25, and it sounds like U SPORTS will continue to allow the RSEQ to have two berths at Nationals despite only having four teams playing. This should be where the RSEQ approaches UQTR to start a women's program to join the men's program while encouraging schools like Laval, UQAR in Rimouski, and UQAC in Chicoutimi to look at hockey programs to make the RSEQ stronger.

With the growth of women's hockey thanks to the PWHL's influence, it seems like U SPORTS is missing out on a number of opportunities to really grow the game, find new opportunities, and give more girls a chance to play high level hockey. I get there are costs associated with starting and running programs, but you can't tell me that there aren't businesses that wouldn't jump onboard to support university hockey in Canada.

Maybe I'm just naive when it comes to promoting the women's game, but I wonder what the "give a damn" level is for the people overseeing the Canadian university hockey scene and programs. This sport and the athletes playing it are phenomenal, but the potential ceiling of how good it could be isn't even in view yet. So I ask this of the overseers who are supposed to be the caretakers of this sport: is it too much to ask for us to get a little closer every year? Or is that actually too much to ask?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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