Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Special mix pushed Huskies back into nationals

U of S women’s hockey team enjoyed a standout campaign

Jessica Vance, middle, enjoys a shutout win with the Huskies.
    Early on, it was apparent the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team might have something special going on in the 2017-18 season.
    During the first weekend of the pre-season last Sept. 8 and 9, the Huskies traveled to Athabasca, Alta., for a two-game series against the University of Alberta Pandas, who entered the campaign as the defending U Sports champions. The Huskies fell 3-2 after a tiebreaking shootout in the first contest and won the second outing 2-1.
    Those games provided an early sign that the Huskies wanted to get running right from the start. On a subjective level, it felt like they had a unity that was a step better than it had been the previous three campaigns. They seemed to have a great will to overcome any adversity that got in their way.
    The Huskies had 14 U Sports academic all-Canadians on their roster in 2016-17, and 11 of those player returned for this past season. To have that many academic all-Canadians on a hockey team roster is something that most teams don’t have.
Kaitlin Willoughby was an outstanding captain for the Huskies.
    The work ethic those players have in the classroom definitely transferred on to the ice. The rest of the team also shared that same drive in the classroom and on the ice even if the grades didn’t translate into a U Sports academic all-Canadian standing.
    As a result, the Huskies took off in 2017-18. Expected to finish around fourth or fifth in the Canada West standings like they had the three previous seasons, U of S didn’t crack into the U Sports Top 10 rankings until well into their playoff run.
    Outside expectations didn’t matter to those on the team’s inner circle, because the Huskies pushed through to finish second overall in the Canada West Conference with a 19-7-2 record. The 19 wins were a team record for the Huskies in the regular season.
    In the playoffs, they swept away the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series 2-0 at the ancient Rutherford Rink. The Thunderbirds had won the Canada West title in each of the previous two campaigns. The Huskies went 6-0 this season against the Thunderbirds.
    On top of advancing to the best-of-three Canada West championship series, the Huskies earned their third berth ever into the U Sports national championship tournament and first since 2014.
U of S was swept out of the Canada West championship series 2-0 by the University of Manitoba Bisons in Winnipeg, Man.
Kennedy Harris was stellar as a defensive forward for the Huskies.
    At the U Sports national championship tournament that wrapped up Sunday in London, Ont., U of S defeated the Saint Mary’s University Huskies 2-1 in a quarter-final game before dropping a 2-1 decision to the host University of Western Ontario Mustangs in the semifinal round and falling by a 4-0 score to the Concordia University Stingers in the bronze medal game.
    The Bisons would win the U Sports title game 2-0 against the Mustangs.
    Going into the season, the biggest question surround the Huskies was who would replace graduated veteran Cassidy Hendricks as the team’s starting goalie. Little did anyone know at the start, the 2017-18 campaign would become the season of Jessica Vance.
    The 20-year-old, who transferred over from the Bisons, made her debut for the Huskies last Nov. 10 in Vancouver, B.C. The Prince Albert, Sask., product made 33 stops to earn a 2-0 shutout victory over the Thunderbirds.
Kira Bannatyne was consistently steady on the back end for the Huskies.
    Vance didn’t look back posting a 14-3-1 record, a 0.77 goals against average, a .964 save percentage and nine shutouts. She topped the conference in most wins, best save percentage and most shutouts to be named the MVP of the Canada West conference and a first team U Sports all-Canadian.
    Her shutout total equaled former University of Alberta Pandas netminder Stacey McCullough for the second most shutouts ever recorded in the Canada West Conference in one U Sports regular season. McCullough posted nine shutouts in the 2000-01 campaign.
    Lindsey Post, who is another former Pandas netminder, holds the Canada West record for most shutouts in one U Sports regular season at 10 recorded in the 2014-15 campaign.
    Thanks to Vance’s efforts, the Huskies posted 12 total shutouts as a team in the campaign to equal a Canada West Conference team record for one season. Chloe Marshall had two shutouts and Jasey Book had one shutout for the U of S. The Pandas also posted 12 shutouts coming in the 2008-09 campaign.
Kori Herner provided an uplifting presence on and off the ice.
    In front of Vance, the Huskies deployed a strong group of defenders who were adept at shutting things down in their own zone. The regular starting six of Morgan Willoughby, Emma Nutter, Leah Bohlken, Kayla Kirwan, Kira Bannatyne and Ava Thiessen were as sound as any group you can find in the country.
    The “all in” togetherness the Huskies displayed has to be credited to the team’s leadership group in star captain Kaitlin Willoughby, who was a second team Canada West all-star and a tournament all-star at the U Sports nationals, and assistant captains Kennedy Harris and Brooklyn Haubrich. Willoughby was an outstanding captain, and she topped the Huskies in scoring for the third time in her five-year career posting nine goals and 10 assists in 26 regular season appearances this past season.
    She had an inspiring lead by example presence, and her graduation leaves a huge crater of a hole to be filled next season.
    Fifth-year speedy winger Kori Herner’s departure will also provide a big void, because she provided a big upbeat and uplifting presence on and off the ice. The Huskies will also have to replace the consistency Harris brought as a defensive forward and Bannatyne brought to the back end as both also completed their fifth seasons.
    The Huskies had a young forward group that got better as the season progressed. Sophomore winger Emily Upgang appeared in all 28 regular season games finishing second in team scoring with seven goals and seven assists. Haubrich, who is in her third year and known for being feisty, had one goal and nine assists for a career high 10 points.
Victory celebrations were common for the Huskies in 2017-18.
    Sophomore forward Bailee Bourassa and rookie forwards Chloe Smith and Abby Shirley have tonnes of potential to grow offensively. Elizabeth Salyn, who was in her third year, and Danielle Nogier, who was in her sophomore season, have cemented roles as defensive forwards.
    The coaching staff led by head coach Steve Kook did an admirable job ensuring the team was ready night in and night out.
    Everyone on the Huskies roster added to the special vibe that helped them return to the Canada West championship series and qualify for nationals both for a third time.
    For those that return to the team next season, their challenge will be to recreate that vibe going forward to keep giving the Huskies a chance at post-season success.

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