Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Huskies vs. Cougars - The rivalry will return and be real

Huskies captain Lauren Zary, right, slips a past past a Cougars forward.
    They will say the right things leading up to the first game day, but those words will fail to hide the intensity that is to come.
    On Friday, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies will face the University of Regina Cougars in Game 1 of a best-of-three Canada West quarter-final women’s hockey playoff series at 7 p.m. at the Ancient Rutherford Rink. Game 2 is set for Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rutherford, and if necessary, Game 3 will be held on Sunday at 7 p.m. at Rutherford.
    Don’t be deceived. There is no way anyone on either team wants to be on the losing side of this series.
    The women’s hockey rivalry between the Huskies and Cougars is a rivalry in its purest form. In Western Hockey League terms, this is old Regina Pats taking on the Moose Jaw Warriors, the Saskatoon Blades tangling with the Prince Albert Raiders in the 1980s and 1990s or the Medicine Hat Tigers battling the Red Deer Rebels in the 2000s.
Kaitlin Willoughby has to play at an all-world level to power the Huskies.
    To see proof of that, all one has to do is look back at the last post-season encounter between the Huskies and Cougars, when they engaged in an epic clash in the 2014 Canada West championship series.
    Every game in that series went to overtime, and the best-of-three series between the two sides featured 17 periods of hockey that totaled up to 296 minutes of ice time.
    The series deciding Game 3 was a war. While there were only four minor penalties called in the contest, there were numerous scrums after every whistle where punches were thrown. The game was physical, but it was also played with a lot of skill and heart before a packed crowd of 760 people.
    When the dust settled, the Huskies came away with a 2-1 victory in double overtime, where Kaitlin Willoughby, who was named that season’s U Sports rookie of the year, netted the winner with a shot from the left side wall.
    The Huskies return eight players from that series as do the Cougars, and the veterans do have long memories of what happened in the past. The majority of the players on both sides came up through the minor hockey system in Saskatchewan and know each other well. Those links give this series that much more of an edge.
Jaycee Magwood had a stellar campaign for the Cougars.
    Out of all the teams in Canada West the Huskies could face at home in the post-season, the Cougars are likely the opponent that will be the least affected by the deficiencies and the unique characteristics of the Rutherford Rink.
    They have probably already addressed in team meetings the atmosphere they are going to face. That will include anticipating the fact the majority of the members of the Huskies men’s hockey team, who are on a bye weekend before beginning their post-season run, will likely be in attendance to give the gears to the opposition wearing green and gold.
    Veteran Cougars head coach Sarah (Howald) Hodges, who has had lengthy involvement with Canada’s national women’s team program, always ensures her teams are well prepared. While she may appear to be quiet, she is no nonsense and holds her players to very high expectations. Her players always bring the effort to meet those expectations.
    Expect the Cougars to enter Rutherford as the outlaws looking to wreak the party.
    As far as the regular season went, not much separated these two clubs. The Huskies finished fourth in Canada West with a 15-10-3 record, while the Cougars were fifth with a 14-13-1 mark.
Kylie Gavelin is aiming for a memorable farewell run.
    The biggest difference came in the four regular season encounters, where the Cougars took three of those meetings and outscored the Huskies 7-3.
    Normally, you would assume the Huskies would have the advantage playing at home, but this series is a tossup.
    In order to win, the Huskies have to rely on Willoughby, who is now in her fourth year, captain Lauren Zary and fifth-year veteran goalie Cassidy Hendricks. Willoughby topped the Huskies in scoring with 11 goals and 10 assists in 24 regular season games. The Prince Albert product has been playing at an all-world level for over a month and just came off of helping Canada’s women’s team win a silver medal at the FISU Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
    Zary appeared in all 28 regular season games for the Huskies netting five goals and 15 assists. Hendricks, who backstopped the Huskies to the 2014 Canada West title, had another stellar year in the U of S net posting an 11-9-3 record, a 1.67 goals against average, a .928 save percentage and two shutouts.
Rachel Johnson dumps a puck into the offensive zone.
    After Zary, the Huskies individual scoring falls off. Fifth-year veteran forward Rachel Johnson finished third in team scoring with six goals and six assists in 28 games.
    Also on the down side, U of S struggled on the power play all season. The Dogs cashed in on only 14-of-132 power-play chances for a 10.6 per cent clip that ranked second last in Canada West and likely cost U of S some wins.
    The Cougars have more a little more scoring depth, and their forward unit includes two players that also played for Canada at the Winter Universiade in Jaycee Magwood and Kylie Gavelin. Magwood, who is a sophomore, topped the Cougars in scoring with 12 goals and 12 assists in 24 games. Gavelin, who is in her fifth and final season, had seven goals and nine assists in 24 games.
    U of R also received solid seasons from third-year forward Emma Waldenberger and four-year forward Kylee Kupper, who both appeared in all 28 regular season games. Waldenberger had nine goals and eight assists, while Kupper had eight goals and eight assists.
    Fifth-year captain Alexis Larson, who also suited up for Canada at the Winter Universiade, eats up a lot of minute on the Cougars blue-line picking up two goals, nine assists and a plus-two rating in 24 regular season games.
Jane Kish (#31) has had a strong season in goal for the Cougars.
    In goal, the Cougars will rely on sophomore Jane Kish to carry the load. During the regular season, the Weyburn, Sask., product posted a 10-9 record, a 2.28 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and three shutouts. Kish backed her hometown Weyburn Gold Wings to an Esso Cup title for female midget AAA hockey national supremacy in 2014.
    One of the big wildcards in the series might be the fact the Huskies are led by positive and upbeat first-year interim head coach Robin Ulrich, who was once a Huskies captain. Ulrich is strong at connecting with her players, and that seems to bring out the best in those wearing the green and white.
    At even strength, the Huskies play as a unit of five has been very strong this season. They need to continue that strong play to transition the puck up ice to create scoring chances.
    On both sides, the ultimate key to the series might be which team can stay the most composed, when the intensity cranks up. When the series wraps up, the winner might just be battle hardened enough to go on a long run that might result in a berth at nationals that run March 16-19 at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Back in the Express with Hendricks

Goaltender Cassidy Hendricks has had a stellar career with the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with feature story on Hendricks.
    The story went to press right before the Huskies played their final two regular season games, so it doesn’t contain a final update of the impressive final career totals put up by the North Vancouver, B.C., product.
    During her five-year career in regular season play, Hendricks appeared in 117 games, recorded a 57-44-13 record, a 2.04 goals against average, a .922 save percentage and 12 shutouts.
    She ranks third on the all-time Canada West career wins list and first in all-time minutes played at 6,973.
    The story on Hendricks can be found right here.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.