Sunday, 22 February 2015

Repeat not in cards for Huskies

Huskies forward Kandace Cook inspired with her heart and determination.
    Winning a championship is hard and repeating as champ is even harder.
    The University of Saskatchewan Huskies women's hockey team learned how true that statement is. Their 2014-15 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday, when they were swept out of the Canada West playoffs by the U of Calgary Dinos. The Dinos claimed a best-of-three quarter-final series 2-0 thanks to a 5-1 victory on Friday and a 3-2 win on Saturday in Calgary.
    The Dogs season wrapped up about a month earlier than it did a year ago, when they won their first Canada West title and a bronze medal at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship tournament. The medal win at nationals was also a first for the program.
    Entering the 2014-15 season, the Huskies returned a large number of players from that championship squad. Even with the returnees, the majority of pre-season predictions had them finishing around third in the conference. As far as the team went, hopes were high that the accomplishments from 2013-14 could be matched or improved upon.
    The Huskies built an 11-3-2 record to sit first overall in Canada West heading into the Christmas break. They started the second semester getting swept by the Dinos in Calgary dropping two games by a combined score of 9-3.
    The players on the U of S squad admitted they weren't very good in those outings. The result seemed to set a tone for the semester, as those setbacks were the start of a seven-game skid.
    Over the final five regular season games, the Huskies showed signs of coming out of their funk posting three wins to finish at 14-10-4 good for fifth overall in Canada West. Their confidence appeared to have returned heading into the post season.
Huskies defensive forward Chelsey Sundby was a heart and soul player.
    Just 61 seconds into Game 1 of their quarter-final series with the Dinos, Janelle Parent scored to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Erika Mitschke scored on a power play just under six minutes late to increase the Dinos' lead to 2-0.
    Parent added her second of the game in the second, and Bronwyn Stevens and Iya Gavrilova potted singles to give the host a 5-0 lead at the 4:43 mark of the third.
    Following the fifth goal, the Huskies pulled starting netminder Cassidy Hendricks, who stopped 25 of 30 shots fired her way. Jerrica Waltz turned aside all five shots she faced in relief.
    Carissa Fischer made 24 saves in goal for the Dinos and her bid for a shutout was stopped thanks to a third period goal by Huskies defender Kira Bannatyne in the 5-1 final.
    In Game 2 on Saturday, Jenna Smith put the Dinos up 1-0 in the first, but standout sophomore Kaitlin Willoughby potted the equalizer for the Huskies to knot things up at 1-1. Gavrilova put the Dinos up 2-1 before the second period ended, and Smith added her second of the contest early in the third to put the hosts up 3-1.
    Canada West first team all-star defender Julia Flinton scored with under a minute to play in the third to pull the Huskies to within 3-2. The Dogs couldn't net the equalizer in the final seconds.
    Hendricks made 26 saves in the loss, while Fischer made 17 saves in the win.
    A lack of scoring depth proved ultimately to be the biggest thing that hurt the Huskies in the second semester. Forward Rachel Johnson was lost with a knee injury during a Jan. 16 home contest at the Rutherford Rink, where the Huskies dropped a 1-0 decision to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. Rookie forward Chelsea Wilson left the team due to family reasons having last played in a 5-2 road loss to the Dinos on Jan. 10.
    When those two players were playing in the first semester, the Huskies had an easier time creating offence. After they left, the Huskies became essentially a one-line team offensively relying on the forward unit of Willoughby, fifth-year forward Kandace Cook and Marley Ervine for goals.
    As a whole, the Huskies scored 58 goals over their 28 game regular season, which ranked sixth in the eight team Canada West. The graduation of Cami Wooster, who was the captain of the Canada West title team, also was a big blow when it came to offensive production, as she led that club with 16 goals and 31 points.
Defender Julia Flinton was a first team Canada West all-star.
    Besides the difficulties with putting the puck in the net, the Huskies also went through a lot of stretches in the second semester where they had trouble breaking out of their own zone, when opponents were in hard on the forecheck.
    When next season rolls around, the Huskies will be without Cook and fifth-year forward Chelsey Sundby due to graduation. Cook had a breakout year offensively with career highs in goals (13) and points (22). Sundby, who is more of a defensive forward, picked up a career high five goals this season and matched her career high in points with seven.
    Both were heart and soul members of the team, whose compete level was always high game in and game out. They will be missed going forward.
    The Huskies will return a key base of players, but they need to find recruits at forward to help them on the offensive end of the rink. They can build around players like Willoughby, who had 10 goals and 16 assists for a team high 26 points. It is possible players currently on the roster could have breakout seasons in 2015-16 with another year of experience under their belts.
    While the way the 2014-15 campaign finished was far from what the Huskies envisioned, the returning players should still shoot for the bar that was set in the 2013-14 Canada West title season. The first CIS title for women's hockey was awarded in 1998, and since that time, the Huskies have only won one conference title.
    When the 2014 Canada West title win happened, it was really special for all those involved. The players that continue to wear the Huskies jersey in the future should strive to one day experience that same feeling and maybe one day exceed that with a first national title win.

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