Sunday 25 February 2024

The Rundown - Semifinals

Four teams remained in the picture for the lone Canada West berth at the 2024 GFL U SPORTS National Women's Hockey Championship as the weekend began, and that number would be cut in half by the time Monday arrived on the calendar. The two Calgary-based teams were taking their respective shows on the road to Vancouver and Edmonton as the Calgary Dinos met up with the UBC Thunderbirds while the Mount Royal Cougars would tangle with the Alberta Pandas. Would the extra week of hockey benefit the visitors? Would the bye week enjoyed by both UBC and Alberta benefit them in their preparations for their opponents? We'll answer those questions as semifinal action is on the menu this week here on The Rundown!

Before we get to the games, here's a quick reminder of the bracket.
If you're wondering about those 3pm PT start times for Calgary-UBC, the UBC Thunderbirds men's hockey team was also hosting a series this weekend as the Alberta Pandas were the guests. I guess the women's team drew the short straw when it came to game times, but the games will be played in Vancouver starting in mid-afternoon.

We'll start with those early games as the Dinos and Thunderirds kicked the weekend off on Friday afternoon. As mentioned last week, the Dinos were the only team to defeat the Thunderbirds in regulation time and on UBC ice this season, so one had to wonder if that was in the back of the minds of the players on both sides of the puck. One had to wonder if Gabriella Durante's shutout streak would continue into this series after Calgary's masterful defensive performances against Saskatchewan one week ago, but UBC is also a vastly different team than the Huskies. Gabriella Durante got the start for the Dinos in this game while Elise Hugens took her skills to the Thunderbirds' crease.

If there was one thing Calgary could carry into this series, it's that they had killed off 12-straight power-plays for their opponents. The only problem, as stated above, is that UBC isn't Saskatchewan, and they struck early on the power-play when Chanreet Bassi's shot from a sharp angle found space under the bar past Durante, and the Thunderbirds went up 1-0 at 4:29 off Bassi's marker. A couple of UBC penalties would slow the momentum they had from that early goal, but the Dinos couldn't convert on those advantages. Two Calgary penalties later in the frame wouldn't hurt the Dinos, but the T-Birds took the one-goal lead to the break as they led 9-4 in shots.

The second period saw both teams looking for more scoring chances, but neither was willing to trade an offensive chance if it meant a defensive lapse. UBC did own more of the offensive zone time in this period, but the Dinos met the challenge. With no penalties being called and no goals being recorded, UBC carried their 1-0 lead into the third period after leading 19-9 on the shot counter.

Calgary, needing to find an equalizer upped their offensive tempo as they looked to strike. The Thunderbirds were doing well before Brooke Dennett decided to show off her hands. Getting the puck off the half-boards, Dennett made a great move to the middle past UBC defender Sierra LaPlante before firing a backhander through Hugens at 6:39, and we had a 1-1 game. That goal seemed to kick the Thunderbirds back into attack mode as they'd restore their lead when Bassi went tape-to-tape to Jacquelyn Fleming at the top of the Calgary crease for the tap-in t make it a 2-1 game at 10:26.

Despite a late power-play against the Thunderbirds where the Dinos pulled Durante for the extra attacker, the Dinos could not solve Hugens or the UBC defence for a second time on this day as UBC grabs the series lead thanks to a 2-1 victory. Elise Hugens picks up the win with a 16-save effort while Gabriella Durante made 29 saves in the setback. I should also note that Durante's shutout streak ended at 157:13 with that Bassi goal in the opening frame, but that's still a heckuva run from Gabriella Durante in these playoffs.

UBC now leads the series 1-0 over Calgary.

I almost choked on my coffee as I was writing this because the UBC Thunderbirds did a highlight reel from this game! Kudos to UBC for this effort - it is appreciated! Here are today's highlights!

With Calgary having been in this same predicament one week earlier, they knew the stakes they were facing. Down a game in a best-of-three series meant that was must-win from this point on, so the Dinos had to bring their best on Saturday. For UBC, they were looking to close out this series and book their appearance in the Canada West Final for the third-straight season, but sending the Dinos into extinction for this season was proving to be a tough task so UBC had to be ready for another tightly-contested game. Gabriella Durante and Elise Hugens took their spots in front of their respective nets as the rematch got underway.

UBC clearly wanted to put this one away early as they brought the firepower and peppered the Dinos' net. The only problem was that Durante was writing a different story as she was in denial mode in the opening frame. The game was decidedly in favour of UBC in shots, but Calgary moved the puck well. They simply couldn't get many clean chances at Hugens. The scorekeepers had an easy time of it in the opening frame as there were no penalties and no goals, and we'd move to the second period with these teams tied at 0-0, but with UBC up 10-4 in shots.

Calgary wasn't waiting around for an invitation to get the scoring started. Just 62 seconds into the middle frame, a puck was chipped to Rebecca Clarke by Jada Johns, and Clarke's quick shot found the net on the blocker side past Hugens as Calgary grabbed the 1-0 lead. Again, the Calgary goal seemed to spark the Thunderbirds as they brought the heat, but Durante was equal to the task as she denied the T-Birds once again. Undeterred, UBC pressured throughout the frame, but the story was Durante and the Dinos' defence as they kept UBC quiet. At the end of 40 minutes, Calgary stood with the 1-0 lead, but UBC owned a 24-11 shot margin.

The third period saw UBC begin with some urgency as they looked for an equalizer, but the Dinos did a good job is skating with their checks. A shortened power-play for either side didn't help the scoring situation, and the teams would continue to battle. With time winding down and becoming an enemy of UBC, they pressed even more which gave Calgary a chance thanks to a breakaway, but that chance was turned aside by Hugens. With a final flurry of chances, the Thunderbirds could not solve Durante or the Dinos on this day, and the Calgary Dinos claimed the 1-0 victory in Game Two! Gabriella Durante picked up her third win and third shutout with a 32-save clean sheet while Elise Hugens stopped 14 shots in this game.

With the Calgary win, the series is tied 1-1 with Game Three scheduled for 3pm PT on Sunday!

Another round of applause for UBC because they have highlights!

There isn't much to write about a Game Three because it's win-or-go-home time for both sides. UBC obviously wants another shot at a Canada West banner while looking to secure the Canada West berth for Nationals. Calgary was looking to continue their Cinderella run after knocking off the Huskies while advancing to a Canada West Final in which no one would have thought they'd be playing. For the third time in three days, Gabriella Durante stood 200-feet from Elise Hugens as this one got underway.

I'm not one to talk about "Cinderella" runs or anything, but the last two weekends saw the Calgary Dinos play inspired, outstanding hockey against teams that were statistically better in most categories than them. Today, they were bettered by a team who simply has more weapons in their quest for a Canada West banner. It started in the first period when Cassidy Rhodes scored off an offensive face-off win just 3:44 into the game to put UBC up 1-0. That became a two-goal lead when Madisyn Wiebe found twine after deflecting a Sophia Gaskell shot at 18:20, and UBC carried that lead into the break despite them only having a 9-8 advantage in shots.

UBC made life even more difficult for Calgary in the third period as Ashton Thorpe potted a rebound off a Makenzie McCallum shot at 3:16. That combo would make it a 4-0 game at 9:55 when Thorpe's initial individual effort was stopped, but McCallum knocked home the rebound from in close. 2:25 after that goal, Grace Elliott's leg was the point of deflection on a Joelle Fiala shot, and that redirected puck got by Durante for the 5-0 lead. While the game certainly wasn't over by any means, a five-goal deficit would be difficult to overcome in most circumstances for any team. That would be the hole the Dinos were in as UBC finished the second period with the 5-0 lead while being up 23-17 in shots.

I'll credit the Dinos for not just rolling over in this one as Brooklyn Fry's long point shot just after an early power-play expired went through traffic and beat Hugens at 5:33 to make it 5-1. UBC was all about preserving its lead while the Dinos pressed, and they'd find a second goal when Josie McLeod's shot appeared to go off a body and past Hugens at 14:01, but time was now the bigger enemy for the Dinos. They'd pull Durante early to try and force the issue in their comeback, but that would be put to rest when Chanreet Bassi teed one up on the rush from the right circle and buried the final nail in this one as the UBC Thunderbirds skated to the 6-2 victory, eliminating the Calgary Dinos in three games. Elise Hugens picked up her second win on a 27-save night while Gabriella Durante stopped 24 shots in her final game this season.

UBC eliminates Calgary in three games, and they will move on to the Canada West Final where they'll host the series.

There's another highlight package! Isn't life better with highlights?

Thanks to these two teams being the second- and third-seeded teams in Canada West, the rivalry between Alberta and Mount Royal would have another chapter written into it this season. As you may recall, Mount Royal needed three games to send Alberta home last season before the Cougars went on to shock the university hockey world with their National Championship effort. I suspect the Pandas haven't forgotten about that, and will want to make sure that doesn't happen again as they have their own championship dreams. Kaitlyn Ross was out in the Mount Royal blue paint while Halle Oswald was protecting the Pandas' net.

As expected, these two teams played a very even period through the opening minutes as neither side allowed any room to move in the offensive zones. An early Mount Royal penalty didn't help the Pandas, and an Alberta penalty minutes later was an opportunity missed for the Cougars. Later in the frame, Madison Willan was knocked down in the slot before Jadynn Morden got a shot away, and the rebound was left in front where Willan had recovered as she swept the puck past the left pad of Ross to make it 1-0 for Alberta at 14:38. Mount Royal would look to tie the game before the break, but the Pandas carried the 1-0 score into the break along with a 10-9 edge in shots.

Alberta found their legs in the second period as they egan to control play. However, before the midway point, a turnover allowed Breanne Trotter to find Aliya Jomha in the high slot, and Jomha wired her third playoff goal inside the post to tie the game at 1-1 at 8:45. The tie game lasted all of 1:51, though, as a turnover at the Cougars' blue line allowed Maia Ehmann to find Allison Reich in the slot, and Reich went high glove-side on Ross to make it 2-1 at 10:36. Alberta continued to press after the goal, but the Mount Royal defence and Ross worked in tandem to keep it a one-goal game. After 40 minutes, the Pandas led 1-0 while holding a 21-13 shot margin.

Mount Royal knew they needed to score, and they upped their offensive pressure right out of the gate. Despite their chances, Oswald was showing why she was named a Second Team All-Star this season. A late penalty called on the Cougars killed their efforts to pull Ross and play with six players, and that sealed the deal on a 2-1 Alberta Pandas victory. Halle Oswald picked up the win with a 22-save effort while Kaitlyn Ross stopped 24 shots in the setback.

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

It seems Alberta got the same message as UBC because they made a highlight reel as well! Here are those highlights!

The defending national champions were on the ropes as the Mount Royal Cougars were in must-win territory after the Pandas won on Friday night. The Pandas were looking to close out the series and get ready for the Canada West Final, but it wouldn't be easy. The fourth- and fifth-ranked teams as per the national rankings were back for Game Two as Kaitlyn Ross and Halle Oswald were back in their respective creases for this game.

The first period was all about the defence as neither side was looking to give any looks at the net for the opposition. An early Alberta power-play didn't generate much offence, and the Mount Royal power-play that followed was virtually a power outage as well. The good news, though, is that the pressure generated by the Cougars allowed Aliya Jomha to find Breanne Trotter, and her quick one-timer beat Oswald at 5:53 to put Mount Royal up 1-0. From there, the two teams went back into complete denial mode as very few shots found their targets. Through one period of play, Mount Royal held the one-goal lead while the teams were tied 3-3 on the shot counter.

Things got back to normal on the offensive sides of the puck in the second period as both Mount Royal and Alberta found the net with shots more often. The only problem was that the netminders weren't letting anything get past them. Two Mount Royal power-plays in the first ten minutes did nothing to help the Cougars, and the final ten minutes of the period saw both sides trying to solve the goalies. At the end of 40 minutes, Mount Royal still had the 1-0 lead and owned a 13-12 edge in shots.

The third period was played much like the second period where chances were had, but both sides were quick to limit additional chances. Midway through the period, though, a centering pass was poked away by an Alberta defender, but Kiana McNinch whipped a shot from the slot past Oswald off the broken play and it was 2-0 for Mount Royal at 12:21. Alberta was granted a power-play minutes later that was killed by the Cougars, and the Pandas finished the game on the power-play, but nothing came from that either. When the final horn sounded, the Cougars had prevailed with the 2-0 win! Kaitlyn Ross picked up her third win and second shutout afetr stopping 21 shots while Halle Oswald made 21 saves on the night.

With the Mount Royal win, the series is tied 1-1 with Game Three scheduled for 7pm MT on Sunday!

More highlights from the Pandas! Enjoy this highlight reel!

There was little room for error in this one as both the Pandas and the Cougars knew the results of being on the wrong side of the score. A win today would send the Pandas to Vancouver in search of another Canada West banner while a win for the Cougars would keep their national title defence alive as they hunted for their first Canada West banner. One team would move on while the other would prepare for next season as Kaitlyn Ross and Halle Oswald stood 200-feet from one another for the third time this weekend.

The Pandas made the first move in securing a Canada West Final berth just 61 seconds into this game when Allison Reich cricled the net into the right corner before throwing a centering pass into the middle that found the blade of Madison Willan, and Willan did what she does best in giving the Pandas the lead with her second goal of the playoffs. That early goal seemed to set the stage for the game as both sides ratched up the offensive pressure at both ends of the ice. A couple of Mount Royal penalties in the period helped Alberta's shot total, but did nothing for their goal total, but a rather quick period in terms of pace and tempo came to an end with Alberta leading 1-0 and up 14-10 in shots.

The second period was more of the previous 19 minutes of hockey as these two teams traded chances only to watch the netminders and defences turn them aside. As this period progressed, it seems as if the Cougars lost a step as the Pandas had more offensive zone chances through the latter half the period, but both sides would hit the second intermission with nothing to more to show for their efforts. After 40 minutes, Alberta still held the 1-0 lead, but jumped ahead 28-16 on the shot counter.

If this was a title fight between two of the top boxers, I'm not sure that either side would be leading in points outside of that early score by Willan. Back and forth was the name of this game as these two squads set up offensive chances only to be denied by good defence and goaltending. An early Alberta power-play was killed, and a Mount Royal power-play with five minutes to play produced nothing. The Cougars opted to pull Ross for the extra attacker with just over two minutes to play, but were denied in their attempts as the hemmed the Pandas in their own zone. A late face-off win allowd the Pandas to relieve the pressure, and Hayleigh Craig would ice this game and series with an empty-netter with ten seconds to play as the Alberta Pandas eliminated the Mount Royal Cougars by a 2-0 score in Game Three. Halle Oswald picked up her second win and first shutout with a 20-save effort while Kaitlyn Ross stopped 32 shots in her final game of the season.

Alberta eliminates the defending national champion Mount Royal Cougars in three games, and they will move on to the Canada West Final where they'll visit UBC starting next Friday.

Highlights for this game are below!

The Bracket

Here is the updated bracket with scheduled game times.
Again, it should be noted that those times shown for the Canada West Final series are for the Pacific Time Zone. The ladies will play the earlier games because the men seemed to have won another contest when it came to game times. Set your clocks accordingly to catch the Pandas and Thunderbirds in action next weekend!

Booking Their Tickets

The RSEQ decided which two teams were coming to Saskatoon this weekend, but it certainly wasn't an easy decision by any means.
The defending U SPORTS silver medallists from last year in the Concordia Stingers will be back to try to add a third medal in as many years after finally beating the Ottawa Gee-Gees in three games. The 25-0-0 RSEQ regular season champs took Game One by a 5-1 score before dropping their first game this season by a 2-1 score in Ottawa to force Game Three. As I've made clear a couple of times, Concordia is a good team, but I was not expecting a 13-0 BLOWOUT to wrap up the series. Ottawa may have kicked a hornet's nest that the other seven teams at Nationals will have to manage.

Montreal got by Bishop's to book their tickets to Saskatoon, but this one didn't end without some drama. Bishop's took Game One by a 1-0 score as the second-place team in the RSEQ grabbed the series lead. Montreal responded in Game Two on home ice by downing Bishop's by a 4-1 score, forcing a Game Three back in Sherbrooke. Game Three saw the contest go to double-overtime where Amélie Poiré-Lehoux ended the second longest match in the history of the Quebec conference with her goal to push Montreal to the RSEQ final via a 2-1 final after 87:08 of hockey.

The drama, however, came during that final sequence of the double-overtime period as the teams had each been whistled for a penalty, meaning it was 3-on-3 hockey. As Montreal entered the zone prior to Lehoux's goal, the video broadcast of the game caught a fourth Montreal player hopping over the boards onto the ice where her skates clearly made contact with the ice surface. That, of course, would be a too-many-players penalty, but the officials missed the infraction. Despite Bishop's protests after the goal, the officials would not be swayed, and Montreal was awarded the victory.

The RSEQ representatives have been chosen after winning one round of hockey, and they will play in Saskatoon from March 14-17.

The Other Two

In the OUA, we already know that Guelph, York, and Waterloo were gearing up for the semifinals. One spot remained as Queen's and Toronto battled this weekend, and that went to a Game Three played today. Would we see Toronto fall in the quarterfinal like Nipissing did or would they prevail and move on?

UPDATE: The OUA threw me a curveall with some crossover series! According to the schedule, Guelph will play the Varsity Blues in their semifinal after Toronto hammered Queen's by a 6-2 score, leaving York and Waterloo to tangle to see who will compete in the one-game-takes-all McCaw Cup Final. Whoever wins that game is looking at a top-four ranking when they land in Saskatoon, but it should be noted that the Guelph-Toronto series will mean another U SPORTS Top-Ten is eliminated before Nationals.

Out in the AUS, both semifinal series are still running as the teams play a best-of-five series in the Maritimes. The StFX X-Women and the St. Thomas Tommies were tied at 1-1 entering today's action, and the Tommies used an Ekaterina Pelowich penalty shot in overtime to down the X-Women 2-1 to take a 2-1 series lead. If the Tommies can win one of the next two games, they would advance to the AUS Final where they would become one of the AUS representatives at the National Championship. Game Four goes Monday night, so we could know by tomorrow if the Tommies will be heading to the prairies.

In the other AUS semifinal, the UNB Reds held a 2-0 series lead over the Saint Mary's Huskies. The Huskies were in must-win mode as any loss will send UNB to the AUS Final where they too would be one of the AUS teams in Saskatoon. It may have taken extra time as well, but Jillian Duggan's double-overtime marker gave SMU the 2-1 win over UNB as that series now sits at 2-1 in favour of UNB. The Huskies aren't out of the woods yet, but they'll get another chance to send this series back to UNB on Monday in Game Four.

The Last Word

The trend continued this week: every team that has scored first in these Canada West Playoffs has won that respective game. Teams that score first are now 11-0 in these playoffs. Scoring first seems to matter. A lot. Hint: there's never a bad time to open the scoring!

I'll give each of the four Canada West teams credit this weekend for their penalty-killing efforts, but I'm also going to warn both UBC and Alberta that they had better find ways to hurt other teams when given advantages. In the six games this weekend, the four teams went 1-for-28 on the power-play, and that lone goal was scored 4:29 into the first period on Friday by Chanreet Bassi. In other words, these four teams played 355:31 of hockey with 27 advantages awarded, and no one scored with the extra player on the ice.

Making matters worse for themselves were Calgary and Mount Royal who were a combined oh-fer-13 on the player-advantage, especially when one considers Sunday's games where Calgary received a power-play trailing 1-0 in the first period and Mount Royal received a power-play trailing 1-0 with 5:39 to play in the third period. Both of those power-plays could have potentially changed those deciding games, and the results may have been different.

Why am I preaching this now? As you know, games at the U SPORTS National Championship are single-elimination contests, so taking advantage of every advantage you're given will only help your cause when seeking that vaunted gold medal. I get that there hasn't been a team who has been perfect on every player-advantage, but I'll wager that the National Champions from each year have scored at least one power-play goal over three games. In short, get the power-play clicking if you want to be successful because those opportunities can win you games.

The good news? Both UBC and Alberta can get those power-plays firing on all cylinders next weekend when they meet for the Canada West championship and the final Canada West berth at Nationals. If one of those two teams can light up their power-play units, we should know who is the next team heading to Saskatoon to compete for U SPORTS' greatest honour.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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