Thursday, 18 February 2016

Post-season picture breaks for possible long Huskies run

Marley Ervine, right, celebrates a goal with a pair of teammates.
    The last time the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team hosted a post-season game at home they won the Canada West title in 2014.
    The way this season’s playoff picture has shaped up it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Huskies venture back to the conference final and land a spot in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship tournament, which runs March 17 to 20 in Calgary.
    With that said, no guarantees can be made in the Canada West women’s hockey ranks in 2015-16 judging by the regular season standings. The Huskies finished a solid in the eight-team circuit with a 14-9-5 record, and were six points shy of first place and nine points from missing the post-season all together. They locked up a playoff berth in their third last contest of the regular season.
    Any of the six teams that are alive in the post-season can envision themselves in post-season glory.
    The Huskies open a best-of-three Canada West quarter-final series on Friday against the University of Manitoba Bisons, who finished fifth in Canada West with a 13-13-2 mark, on Friday at 7 p.m. at the ancient Rutherford Rink. Game 2 follows on Saturday and Game 3, if necessary, will be Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Rutherford on both nights.
    The Bisons played the Huskies extremely tough in four head-to-head contests, where each side won twice. The fact that Huskies have home ice advantage will likely give them that extra kick to get out of the first round.
Julia Flinton topped the Huskies in scoring.
    With a series victory, the Huskies would likely travel to Vancouver to face the second place University of British Columbia Thunderbirds (16-9-3) in the semifinal round. The fate of a possible series there likely revolves around the health of Thunderbirds veteran star goalie Danielle Dube, who was injured last Saturday in goal mouth collision in a 4-3 road loss in Winnipeg to the Bisons. 
    Dube was carted off the ice, and if she is unable to play or is less than 100 per cent, the chances of beating the Thunderbirds in Vancouver get easier.
    If the Huskies get past that round with that scenario, they would actually end up hosting the Canada West final at home, because the conference’s other first and third place clubs would be taken down by a red hot U of Calgary Dinos team.
    The Dinos are assured of a spot at the eight-team CIS championship tournament due to the fact they host the event. They struggled during the first half of the campaign before closing the regular season winning nine of their last 11 games to qualify for the Canada West playoffs with a 12-12-4 record.
    Their Russian imports Iya Gavrilova and Sasha Vafina have played some of their best hockey finishing first and second respectively in conference scoring. Gavrilova had 20 goals and 23 assists, while Vafina had 14 goals and 21 assists. 
    Third-year netminder Hayley Dowling has had a breakout campaign posting a 10-5-1 record, a 2.30 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and two shutouts. She started every contest in U of C’s season ending hot stretch.
    The Dinos have the game breakers offensively and are solid in goal. As a sixth seed, they have a good chance of running the table on the road and have to be looked at as the favourites to win the Canada West title.
Marley Ervine has played 152 straight games for the Huskies.
    U of C heads to Regina this weekend to face the University of Regina Cougars in a best-of-three quarter-final series. The Cougars led the conference in wins at 17 posting a 17-10-1 record, but fell to third place due to the fact five of their victories came in overtime. In Canada West women’s hockey, three points are awarded in the standings for regulation wins and two points are given for extra time victories, and the Cougars lost a chance to finish first due to that statistical factor.
    The Cougars have won seven of their last 10, so the series with U of C will be a battle, but the Dinos might be too hot to stop at this point. If the Dinos win their quarter-final series, they would advance to play the first place University of Alberta Pandas (16-9-3) in the semifinal round. 
    The Pandas won both meetings between these two clubs in Edmonton, but the Dinos have looked more like a first place team down the stretch. The Dinos will have a strong shot to knock off their provincial rivals.
    In the crazy Canada West season, it is realistic to see the Huskies host the Dinos in a best-of-three conference final, which would ensure the Huskies a berth at nationals. With that said, both the Huskies and Dinos could as easily be done in round one.
    An intangible that might help the Huskies is the fact they still have 12 holdovers from their Canada West winning championship squad in 2014. Out of those dozen holdovers, five are set to exhaust their fifth and final years of eligibility in Brooke Mutch, Hanna McGillivray, Marley Ervine, captain Paige Anakaer and star offensive defender Julia Flinton. 
Captain Paige Anakaer might return from a knee injury.
    Anakaer has been out with a knee injury suffered in a 2-1 home loss on Jan. 22 to the Thunderbirds, but the Moose Jaw product has been skating.
    All five have been heart-and-soul members of the team, and you can likely expect one last flash from this group. Flinton had her best season leading the Huskies in scoring with a career best 26 points coming on four goals and career high 22 assists. She was also a career-best plus-15 in the plus-minus department.
    Ervine, the feisty forward from Kindersley, had career bests in goals (nine), assists (15), points (24) and plus-minus (plus-8). Besides holding the Canada West record for career regular season games at 136, Ervine has never missed a game in her five seasons with the Huskies appearing in 152 straight contests including action in the regular season, post-season and CIS championship tournament. She would love to continue to grow that mark.
    The post-season is stage ready. The Huskies have great chance to step up into a leading role.

Blades finally find that little extra

The Blades celebrate a victory over the Broncos on Wednesday.
    The Saskatoon Blades finally found that little extra push to get back in the win column.
    On Wednesday, the Blades downed the visiting Swift Current Broncos 4-3 before 3,768 spectators at the Sasktel Centre thanks to doing a lot of little things right. The hosts blocked numerous shots, won a number of key puck battles, went 2-for-6 on the power play and killed off the five power-play opportunities the Broncos had.
    Starting goaltender Brock Hamm, who has been plagued by inconsistency, made 39 saves to earn the win in goal, which included a number of game-saving stops. Saskatoon also received goals from four different sources as Dustin Perillat, Josh Paterson, Cameron Hebig and Braylon Shmyr all potted singles.
    Saskatoon also overcame some rough spots. The Broncos scored in the closing seconds of the second period to cut a two-goal Blades lead to 2-1. With the Blades holding a 4-2 edge, the Broncos scored with 1:58 to play in the third to create a frantic finish, but the hosts successfully closed out the game.
    The Blades improved to 20-33-4 and sit 11 points behind the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference held by the Edmonton Oil Kings (24-26-6-1). Saskatoon only has 15 games remaining in its regular season schedule and would need to post a huge winning streak to have a chance of earning a post-season berth for the first time since 2013.
    A more realistic expectation for the Blades might be to focus on repeating their effort from Wednesday night each time they hit the ice through to their last 15 contests. With 20 wins and 44 points, the Blades have bested those totals from a season ago. They are still taking little steps forward, even if the big post-season step likely doesn’t come just yet.

Stars close regular season with first locked up

Grace Shirley swoops into the offensive zone for the Stars.
    The Saskatoon Stars will finish their Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season looking to tune up for the post-season.
    The defending SFMAAAHL champions last hit the ice on Jan. 31, when they thumped the Melville Prairie Fire 8-0 at the Agriplace Arena. They proceeded to play the waiting game to see if they would need to win one of their final two regular season outings to lock up first place in the eight-team league for a second straight year.
    The Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats were the only club that could catch the Stars in the standings, if they won their final six regular season games in regulation. When the Wildcats fell 5-4 after a tiebreaking shootout to the Notre Dame Hounds in Wilcox on Feb. 3, the Stars (22-4) captured first overall.
    Saskatoon heads to Battleford for clashes with the last place Sharks (3-21-2) on Saturday and Sunday.
    Stars forwards Mackenna Parker and Grace Shirley are likely long shots at this point to win the league’s scoring title. Both trail Regina Rebels forward Kennedy Bobyck who tops all scorers with 16 goals and 22 assists for 38 points. Bobyck recently turned 15 years of age.
    Parker is second in the league scoring race with 32 points coming on 14 goals and 18 assists. Shirley is third in SFMAAAHL scoring with 30 points coming on 18 goals and 12 assists.
    All eight clubs in the SFMAAAHL advance to the post-season.

Late (Heisler) McGregor forever a legend in Regina

Crystal (Heisler) McGregor circa 2001.
    It has been almost two years since Crystal (Heisler) McGregor passed away of cancer, but she is still a key figure in the sports scene in Regina.
    In the late 1990s and early 2000s, McGregor was the point guard on the University of Regina Cougars women’s basketball team, when the Cougars were the most exciting women’s hoops squad in Canadian Interuniversity Sport. They ran teams out of the gym with their high tempo transition attack and never seemed to fatigue in the process.
    McGregor was the quarterback at the point guard position who dished off assists at will and had deadly accuracy from three-point range sporting her trademark #11 jersey. She was a key member of the Cougars CIS championship team in 2001.
    The graduate of Regina's Sheldon-Williams Collegiate is more remembered for her always upbeat personality away from the court and infectious smile. She was very caring and had a natural ability to make everyone around her feel comfortable and welcome.
    During McGregor’s years with the Cougars, little girls around the Queen City grew up with dreams of playing for the Cougars women’s hoops team. McGregor attained legendary status in the Regina sporting scene, as she moved on to coach basketball at the school and club levels following her playing days.
    On May 15, 2014, she passed away at age 35 after a battle with cancer that lasted over two years. Her motto during that battle was to “Dance In the Rain.” Her husband, Paul, became a single father with two young children in daughter, Aija, and son, Zayden. Aija was only eight-years-old at the time of Crystal’s death, and Zayden was age two.
    On Friday night, the Cougars basketball teams are inviting back all their alumnae and alumni and their families for their games that night with the U of Saskatchewan Huskies at the Centre for Kinesiology, Health and Sport on the U of R campus. Free tickets will be distributed to the alumnae and alumni and their families.  
    The women’s game is set for 6 p.m. and the men’s game is slated for 8 p.m. Aija’s club team also plays a mini game during halftime of the Cougars women’s contest.
    Special tributes will be held for Crystal McGregor and funds will be raised for the Shine On Foundation, which helps give financial support to moms who are fighting an advanced cancer diagnosis and help them and their families create lifelong positive memories.
    You can bet there will be a special vibe in the Cougars home gym on Friday night. It will be another example of how McGregor’s memory continues to inspire and bring people together.

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