Friday, 16 February 2018

Huskies’ Vance should be Canada West MVP

Goalie Jessica Vance, left, gives a fist bump with Kennedy Harris.
    In the season of the shutout, Jessica Vance has reigned supreme.
    As a result, the sophomore goalie from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team should be the most valuable player in the Canada West Conference.
    Vance, who stands 5-foot-7, had an impressive first campaign with the Huskies 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, the best save percentage and most shutouts.
    Her shutout total equals 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.
Jessica Vance topped Canada West in wins, save percentage and shutouts.
    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. The Pandas also posted 12 shutouts coming in the 2008-09 campaign.
    The 20-year-old Prince Albert, Sask., product played a key part in helping the Huskies finish second overall in Canada West with a 19-7-2 record. The 19 wins marked a new Huskies team record for most victories in one regular season. That finish allows the Huskies to host a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series that is slated to start with Game 1 on February 23 at 1:30 p.m. at the ancient Rutherford Rink.
    Vance helped the Huskies get to a place in the standings they haven’t been since they last finished second in Canada West back in the 2013-14 campaign with an 18-4-6 record. The Huskies also won the Canada West title in that campaign and a bronze medal at the U Sports national championship tournament.
    Since the 2013-14 season, the Huskies have still been good finishing fifth in 2014-15 and fourth in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns. They were in search of that extra edge to push them back into one of the top two spots in the standings, and Vance gave them that edge. That fact should play a major part in naming her the most valuable player in the conference.
Jessica Vance played with a great calm in goal for the Huskies.
    Vance posted a 6-3-1 mark and two shutouts in the combined starts she made against the University of Manitoba Bisons, the defending U Sports champion Pandas and the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. In the latest U Sports Top 10 rankings, the Bisons are rated first, the Pandas second and the Thunderbirds are fifth.
    The Huskies didn’t crack the U Sports Top 10 even with their second place finish in Canada West and the wins they put up against the Bisons, Pandas and Thunderbirds. If the Huskies aren’t worthy of being rated in the U Sports Top 10 rankings with their Canada West foes, then Vance should be given that much more credit for the record the Huskies had and add to the reasons she should be the Canada West MVP.
    In 2017-18, 54 of the 112 regular season games played in the Canada West Conference for women’s hockey ended in shutouts, which meant the pressure was on the goalies to not even give up a single goal on most nights. Through the whole season, Vance never got rattled by that type of pressure. She had a calm about her in net that few goalies female or male have.
    On top of all of that, Vance went over two-and-a-half years between competitive starts.
Jessica Vance’s play was key in a second place finish for the Huskies.
    Way back on March 25, 2015, Vance played her final game with the Prince Albert Northern Bears making 20 saves in a 2-0 loss to the Saskatoon Stars in Game 3 of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series at the Agriplace Arena. The Stars swept the best-of-five series 3-0.
    With her midget AAA career having reached a conclusion, Vance originally planned to join the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team, but she sat out the 2015-16 season as a medical redshirt after suffering a major leg injury playing competitive softball in the summer of 2015.
    Vance dressed for one game as a backup goalie early last season for the Bisons before electing to play closer to home choosing to transfer to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s team. Due to dressing for that one game, she wasn’t eligible to play for the Huskies until Nov. 1, 2017.
    Normally, that type of absence would cause a major setback for most high-level athletes.
    Vance never lost her game, and she was the main factor in helping the Huskies reach a higher level in the standings.
    Her story seems unbelievable, and that is what makes it special. The case for her being the Canada West MVP is a clear one, and that honour should come her way.

Willoughby proves she’s P.A. tough

Huskies captain Kaitlin Willoughby, right, has played through a few battles.
    Kaitlin Willoughby’s biggest accomplishment of the 2017-18 U Sports regular season might be the fact she skated through it in one piece.
    The star captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team has always drawn extra attention from the opposition due to her ability to score. It seemed the attention she received on the ice in her fifth and final season of eligibility was greater than in any of her first four campaigns.
    While bodychecking is illegal in women’s hockey, it was apparent players on opposing teams were out to deliver a few physical blows Willoughby’s way. 
    The most obvious case came in the Huskies 2-1 victory after a tiebreaking shootout over the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds on Jan. 27 at the Rutherford Rink, when Willoughby was on the receiving end of a hip check from Thunderbirds centre Mathea Fischer. There was no call on the play.
    Throughout the season, Willoughby’s presence on the ice resulted in opponents cross-checking her, slashing her after the play was blown dead and a few failed attempts to level her with a hit worthy of former star NHL defenceman Scott Stevens. It is almost a certainty a few opponents landed the odd punch on Willoughby in scrums, which do happen in the women’s game.
    Despite all the attempts to target her, beat her down and knock her off her game, Willoughby, who stands 5-foot-6, still finished fifth in the Canada West scoring race with nine goals and 10 assists in 26 regular season appearances.
Kaitlin Willoughby faces a lot of attention from opposing teams.
    The treatment the 22-year-old Prince Albert product has received on the ice isn’t foreign to what star players receive at any level of hockey.
    In the WHL, Nolan Patrick encounter similar treatment from opponents leading the Brandon Wheat Kings to a league championship in the 2015-16 campaign. In the 2016 WHL playoffs, he played through lots of extra shots and successfully remained at the top of his game.
    Adam Brooks and Sam Steel played through a lot of abuse powering the Regina Pats to an appearance in the WHL championship series last year. Mathew Barzal endured is share of unwanted physical shots helped the Seattle Thunderbirds win the WHL title last season.
    In U Sports men’s hockey, Derek Hulak had to play through lots of unwanted physical attention earning the Canada West most valuable player award in his final campaign with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s team in 2013-14.
    At times, it seemed like the abuse all these players received was a borderline attempt to injure.
Willoughby showed her physical toughness this season and her mental toughness. In her first couple of seasons with the Huskies, the odds of her getting knocked off her game and seeing her get involved in trash talking sessions with opposing players was higher, if she received some unwanted hacks.
    She never lost her composure no matter what happened to her this season. In that, Willoughby accomplished a pre-season goal to emulate her former Huskies captain from her rookie season in Cami Wooster.
    In the process of playing though taking unnecessary physical shots, Willoughby upped the level of her teammates. They could see what was happening, and when something underhanded happened on the ice, you could see their focus becoming that much sharper.
Kaitlin Willoughby, centre, is surrounded by teammates who have her back.
    Willoughby’s teammates were right behind her, and they were ready to respond in the physical department. That was another obvious sight in the little battles you could see all over the ice.
    It felt like opponents would be wiser if they tried to avoid doing something that got the collective attention of the Huskies. The Huskies always seemed to win, when that happened.
    The Huskies begin their playoff march hosting Game 1 of a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series on February 23 at 1:30 p.m. at the Rutherford Rink.
    One last playoff run now awaits Willoughby, and she has a group of battle-hardened teammates right behind her that have her back. That gives the Huskies a huge chance to reach some very lofty heights.

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