Saturday, 3 March 2018

Conference championship not meant to be for Huskies

Bisons sweep Canada West title series with Game 2 win

Canada West finals loss sinks in for Kaitlin Willoughby, right, and the Huskies.
  WINNIPEG, Man. - For a moment, it looked like Kaitlin Willoughby was going to do it again.
    Just when all hope seemed lost for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team, the star fifth-year captain hit high gear.
    On Saturday night before a raucous crowd of 860 spectators at the Wayne Fleming Arena, the host University of Manitoba Bisons surged out a 3-0 lead in the second period in Game 2 of a best-of-three Canada West conference championship series with the Huskies. The Huskies needed to win to force a deciding Game 3 on Sunday.
    With 4:45 to play in the second, Willoughby drove into the Bisons zone on an individual rush and scored to cut the host side’s lead to 3-1.
Captain Kaitlin Willoughby scored twice for the Huskies.
    Just 78 seconds into the third, Willoughby drove home a shot from the half-wall on right side boards to further trim the Bisons lead to 3-2. It appeared the Prince Albert, Sask., product was going lift her team to victory with another stellar playoff performance.
    Inside of the final five minutes of the third, the hosts halted the comeback attempt by the visitors.
    With 4:56 to play in the frame, Bisons third-year centre Jordyn Zacharias cut across the front of the U of S net and tucked a key insurance goal to give U of M a 4-2 lead. Fourth-year centre Courtlyn Oswald scored into an empty net with 72 seconds to play in the third to round out a 5-2 victory for the Bisons.
    The win allowed the Bisons sweep the Canada West championship series 2-0 and give U of M its third conference title in women’s hockey and first since the 2010-11 campaign.
Jordyn Zacharias celebrates her third period goal for the Bisons.
    “I said to the girls if we’re still down by two goals and there is four minutes left, we are not giving up,” said Willoughby. “I said we’re not quitters, and we are going to play hard the whole game no matter what.
    “I’m really proud of our team, because I know that is what we did.”
    Both teams had already locked up berths to the U Sports nationals to be held March 15 to 18 in London, Ont., by the University of Western Ontario Mustangs by making it to the Canada West championship series. With that in mind, the Bisons and Huskies preferred to head to nationals as conference champions.
    The Huskies were looking to win the school’s second Canada West women’s hockey title in team history.
    After the loss to the Bisons on Saturday, a real sombre atmosphere hung over the Huskies dressing room area.
    Willoughby scored the Canada West championship winning goal for the Huskies as a rookie in their 2-1 double overtime victory over the University of Regina Cougars in a series deciding Game 3 in March of 2014. 
Natasha Kostenko, left, scored in the Bisons second-period surge.
    She dealt with a mix of emotions following Saturday’s loss to the Bisons.
    “Just being in my fifth year, it makes it hard, because I know I am not going to be here in this position again,” said Willoughby. “I wanted to finish it off strong with a Canada West championship.
    “At the same time, this is the beauty of it. We know we can go to nationals here, and we know we have a second shot. I think this is honestly going to fuel us, because we know how much it hurts and we don’t want to feel this way again at nationals.”
    In Saturday’s game, the two sides played through a tight checking opening frame. Despite zipping up and down the ice, the scoring chances by either side were limited.
Lauren Taraschuk, left, turns away a shot playing goal for the Bisons.
    The Bisons, who are rated first in the U Sports Top 10 rankings, surged out to a 3-0 lead in the second period. Fifth-year left-winger Charity Price tucked home a goal at the right side of the Huskies net to give the host side a 1-0 lead.
    Fifth-year left-winger Alanna Sharman followed that tally up with a breakaway goal, and fourth-year right-winger Natasha Kostenko completed the Bisons goal gusher scoring with 7:23 remaining in the second.
    When Willoughby scored her first goal of the game, her tally ended a playoff shutout streak for Bisons netminder Lauren Taraschuk that lasted 259 minutes and 30 seconds. Taraschuk, who was the rookie-of-the-year for the Canada West Conference, made 18 stops to back the Bisons to victory.
Kaitlin Willoughby passes the puck up ice on a rush for the Huskies.
    “It was just really focusing on doing my part,” said Taraschuk, who Bisons topped the Canada West regular season standings with a 22-5-1 record. “We worked so hard for this all year, and I’m just doing what I can to help my team out.”
    After the Huskies closed to within 3-2, Taraschuk was pumped her team stayed composed to score twice more to seal victory. The 18-year-old puck stopper was elated to experience the thrill of winning a Canada West title so early in her U Sports career.
    “There are absolutely no words to describe this feeling,” said Taraschuk. “We laid it all out there.”
    “It is an absolute family. We love each other.
Netminder Jessica Vance clears the puck away from the Huskies net.
    “We stuck together through thick and thin all season. We’re really proud of each and every one of us.”
    Jessica Vance, who was Canada West’s player-of-the-year, turned away 22-of-26 shots fired her way to take the setback in goal for the Huskies.
    Huskies head coach Steve Kook liked how his side battled in the setback.
    “It is not the end result that hurts,” said Kook, whose team is rated eighth in the U Sports Top 10 rankings. “You compete in a game like that, and you just keep pushing.
    “The game got decided way at the end of the game here. You are pushing and pushing.
    “All of sudden, it is taken away from you at the end of the game. They are just processing that right now.”
The Bisons celebrate their Canada West title win.
    Kook said making it to the conference finals was still a big accomplishment noting that this was only the third time the Huskies women’s hockey program has advanced this far in the post-season. The veteran bench boss said time will come when the players will reflect fondly on what happened.
    “I know they are not going to appreciate it right now,” said Kook, whose Huskies finished second in the Canada West regular season standings with a 19-7-2 mark. “The program really appreciates the work that they did.
    “Our alumni are going to be proud of the things they did. I think it is going to take tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe Tuesday to process, “Hey, this is pretty good. We’re top two in a very tough conference.”
The disappointed Huskies will now regroup for nationals.
    “At some point, it is going to get there. Maybe not tonight. That was the message.”
    While the Huskies weren’t able to bring the Canada West championship trophy - the Catherwood Cup - back to Saskatoon, Willoughby plans to do everything she can to help her team conclude the 2017-18 campaign on a high note at nationals.
    “We are just going to reset on Monday,” said Willoughby. “We are going to go back to practice, and we are going to work our asses off.
    “We are going to hopefully come out on top in two weeks.”

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