Thursday, 19 February 2015

Underdog hockey Huskies far from finished

Goaltender Ryan Holfeld makes a paddle save for the Huskies.
    They might be on the road to open the post-season, but it wouldn't be a shocker if both University of Saskatchewan Huskies hockey teams were back at the ancient Rutherford Rink next week hoping a rust break doesn't disrupt practice.
    Both Huskies teams are in Calgary to open the Canada West playoffs in respective best-of-three quarter-final series. The Huskies men's team, who were 10-15-3 in the regular season, battles the Mount Royal University Cougars (17-10-1). The Huskies women's team, who were 14-10-4 in the regular season, takes on the U of Calgary Dinos (14-9-5).
    Game 1 of each series is set Friday, Game 2 follows Saturday, and any Game 3s, if necessary, will be held Sunday.
    During the regular season, similar themes emerged from both Huskies squads. Both had struggles putting the puck into the net, but strong goaltending and defence always made victory possible each time they hit the ice.
    In the men's Canada West playoffs, the team that succeeds will be the one the shakes off the rust the quickest. At the Winter Universiade that recently wrapped up in Granada, Spain, Canada's men's team, which won a bronze medal, was made up entirely of players from Canada West. Due to that fact, the Canada West men's league has gone through three off weeks between games.
    As a result, any positive momentum up swings or slumps that were suffered as the regular season came to a close are now pretty much irrelevant. The biggest challenge the coaching staffs on each squad had was keeping the players engaged at practice as much as possible as the off time dragged on.
   A team can only practise for so long before you pretty much have to have a game. It is just human nature.
The Cougars claimed three of four regular season encounters against the Huskies. Two of those Cougars wins were by a one-goal margins, and both came at Mount Royal.
   The Huskies have platooned goaltenders Ryan Holfeld and Jordon Cooke throughout the regular season. Holfeld had a 2.42 goals against average and a .922 save percentage, while Cooke had a 3.13 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Both also had one shutout each.
   The Dogs won't go wrong with whoever they put in goal. As far as intangibles go, it would be nice if they give Holfeld the nod to start and carry the load in the series. The fifth-year veteran is playing the final games of his Canadian Interuniversity Sport career, and the likelihood is high he will go out playing in spectacular fashion.
   In his final regular season start back Jan. 29, Holfeld, who is in law school, was absolutely magical making 48 saves in regulation and two overtime periods and turning away five of six shooters in a tiebreaking shootout in a 2-1 setback to the U of Alberta Golden Bears. It might have been the best individual performance seen this season at the Rutherford Rink.
Josh Roach speeds up ice for the Huskies.
   While they haven't scored a lot, the Huskies do have enough offence to get the job done in a short best-of-three series. Fifth-year forward Craig McCallum is their most dangerous offensive player having led the team in scoring with 12 goals and 14 assists. Second-year forward Josh Roach has become a key set-up man finishing second in team scoring with six goals and 16 assists.
    Cody Cartier led the Cougars in scoring with 14 goals and a Canada West best 25 assists. Dalyn Flette and Cam Lanigan split time in goal for Mount Royal. Flette had a 2.36 goals against average and a .924 save percentage, while Lanigan had a 2.54 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.
    On the women's side, the Huskies closed the regular season winning three of their last five games. That included wrapping up the regular campaign with a 2-1 victory over the U of Regina Cougars last Saturday at the Rutherford Rink.
    Over that stretch, the Huskies started to play a lot more sound in their overall team game. That was a key aspect that allowed them to win the Canada West title a year ago, and helped them sit first in Canada West conference going into the semester break. They dropped to fifth in Canada West after starting the second semester on a seven-game losing streak.
    Cassidy Hendricks had starred in goal all season starting 26 of 28 regular season games posting a 2.21 goals against average, a .926 save percentage and four shutouts. She has built a reputation as being a money netminder in key games in her three seasons with the team.
    The Huskies also return arguably their best player in offensive defender Julia Flinton, who helped Canada's women's team in a silver medal at the Winter Universiade. The smooth skating Flinton had five goals and nine assists in 23 regular season games with the Huskies.
    Standout sophomore Kaitlin Willoughby led the Huskies in scoring with 10 goals and 16 assists, while most team's best defensive forwards and defenders night in and night out. She finished sixth in scoring in the conference.
    Fifth-year forward Kandace Cook had her best season with the Huskies picking up career highs with 13 goals and 22 points. Her nine assists was the second highest total she posted in that statistical category in her career.
    The biggest story coming out of the Dinos camp was the fact they won't have Canadian hockey icon Hayley Wickenheiser in their lineup after having season-ending foot surgery on Wednesday.
Kaitlin Willoughby zips up ice for the Huskies.
    The Dinos will still have Russian Olympic team members Iya Gavrilova and Alexandra Vafina in the fold. Gavrilova finished second in conference scoring with 21 goals and 16 assists in 23 games. Vafina played just seven games with the Dinos picking up one goal and one assist. Both helped Russia's women's team win gold at the Winter Universiade.
    Sophomore forward Janelle Parent was second in Dinos team scoring with 13 goals and 15 assists. Hayley Dowling had the majority of the starts in goal for the Dinos posting a 2.18 goals against average, a .912 save percentage and two shutouts.
    The two clubs slip their four regular season contests, with each side hold court on home ice. Wickenheiser played in all those matches.
    The Huskies seven-game skid to start the second semester began with two consecutive losses to the Dinos in Calgary by a combined score of 9-3. While those setback started a down stretch, the Dogs could possibly start a memorable playoff run with a series win in Calgary.
    Going into the series, it was visible the Huskies had their focus and confidence back, and those could be intangibles that help push them through the first round.
    One worry the Huskies have that they can't control is numbers. They have exactly 18 healthy skaters and two healthy goals, which will allow them to dress a full roster. If they encounter any more injuries, that will force them to skate with a short bench.
    Both Huskies hockey teams face big challenges, but they are ones that can be overcome.

Blades give Nogier spectacular homecoming

Nelson Nogier gets honoured by the Blades.
    It felt like Nelson Nogier jersey retirement night on Wednesday at the Sasktel Centre.
    The former Blades defenceman, who spent two-and-a-half seasons with the team, appeared in his first game at the Sasktel Centre since becoming a member of the Red Deer Rebels. Shortly before this season's Christmas break, the Blades dealt Nogier and 18-year-old right-winger Austin Adamson to the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for 17-year-old winger Mason McCarty, a first round selection in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft and a second round selection in the 2015 Bantam Draft.
    In his time with the Blades, Nogier was the poster boy team player, who was huge in representing the club in the community. He was also the WHL's scholastic player of the year last season.
    Before Wednesday's game, Nogier, who an NHL Entry Draft selection of the Winnipeg Jets, was honoured at centre ice. He was presented with his old game jersey in a glass case, an amazing looking framed action photo and he took the ceremonial faceoff against Blades captain and friend Brett Stovin. Nogier's father, Pat, dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff.
    The Blades also gave away 2,500 Nelson Nogier bobblehead dolls to the 4,479 spectators in attendance. Nogier's Rebels took the contest 4-3 on the strength of two late third-period goals.
    The Blades are rebuilding under a new owner Mike Priestner, and Wednesday's pre-game festivities were really first class. While hockey does have a business side to it, it is still nice a show a former player, who made all the right moves and carried himself well, that his time with the team was appreciated. That also sends a good message to any player looking to join the Blades that they will be appreciated and treated with respect, if they put in an honest effort with the team.
    Of course, Nogier is my young cousin and there was a large family presence at Wednesday's game. It is safe to say we were all pretty impressed with the pre-game festivities. My young cousin was pretty humbled by what took place.
    Overall, that was a pretty cool night, and it was too bad the game itself couldn't have ended in a tie.

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