Toronto, ON- “We knew they were going to be a tough challenge, and from the first to last whistle of this series that’s exactly what they were.” Those were the words of Vicky Sunohara, the head coach of the Toronto Varsity Blues women’s hockey team after their overtime series win on Sunday night over the Ryerson Rams.
The first period of Game 3 began as expected, the two teams were focused on physical hockey as it was body first and puck second. Despite body checking being against the rules, both sides were still able to play the physical brand of the game that has become synonymous with the playoffs. Neither team was able to garner much offence in the opening minutes as every player was getting adjusted to the speed and intensity that was on offer at Varsity Arena.
However, settling into the game can only last so long and eventually, the chances began to sprout. What was a physical affair transitioned into a game where puck possession would prevail.
The Varsity Blues, who have become adept at this brand of hockey, were in their nature whenever they got the puck. Once the game changed its stride, it did not take very long until the first goal went in. Eight minutes into the game, Mathilde DeSerres fired a shot on Ryerson netminder Rachel Seely. Seely, who has backstopped the Rams with a. 940 save percentage to this point, parried the rebound into her goal mouth where Varsity Blues forward Louie Bieman made no mistake as she slid the puck into the gaping Rams net.
The goal not only held significance on the ice, but also off as it sent a roar throughout the couple hundred fans who packed Varsity Arena to cheer on the Varsity Blues. While the sound levels did not reach the height that they did between the York Lions and Nippsing Lakers, the crowd was still much larger than any other crowd in the women’s hockey calendar.
While the first ended 1-0 for the home team which was a pleasant sight for their fans, it was not as easy a period to swallow for the travelling Ryerson contingent which was sizeable and passionate for their women’s hockey program’s best playoff run in their history. Regardless, the sounds and passion from the two fans offered something which has rarely been seen from fans of the two schools throughout the season.
When the puck dropped for the second, it was as if Ryerson had drawn up a number of plays in the intermission, many of which focused around specific players. Although the plans and tactics were evident throughout the opening minutes, it took a while for them to settle into their new tactics. Unfortunately for the visitors, the brief period of adjustment opened up gaps that could be exploited.
It was exactly what the home side did as Natasha Athanasaskos potted her first of the night to restore the lead for the Varsity Blues.
The second continued to be filled with hard-fought hockey from either side and it eventually paid off for Ryerson when their tactics finally proved worthwhile. It was evident that part of head coach Lisa Haley’s plan was to find some way to get her sniper Lauren Nicholson in shooting positions. With two minutes left in the period, that’s exactly what happened as Nicholson fired a puck over the shoulder of Erica Fryer into the Toronto net. Her goal, which was her third of the series, brought the Rams within one and completely changed the mood between periods.
In the third, the mission could not have been clearer for Ryerson. They had to find a way to claw their way back to an even score. The effort and passion nearly boiled over on both sides and a hit eventually landed captain Kryshanda Green in the penalty box. While a penalty at such a crucial time could have been costly, the Rams made sure the opposite happened. Olivia Giardetti, a third-year forward, grabbed the puck shorthanded and scored a beautiful diving goal which put the Rams on level terms. After Giardetti’s tally, chances continued to flow, but neither team was able to find anything.
For the second night in a row, these two teams required overtime.
Going into the overtime, there was a lot going through the minds of everyone in the stadium, but for Vicky Sunohara, she was confident. “There were nerves, but this group has faced a lot of overtimes this year, so we were all confident. Ryerson had a lot of chances, but I’m so proud that we pulled out the win,” said the U of T head coach.
When everything is on the line, every small thing is elevated. The sounds are louder, mistakes are amplified and the nerves are tenser. Overtime was the perfect example of all of this. As the teams battled on the ice, the fans jeered each other from the stands whilst cheering the players on the ice simultaneously.
There were chances galore and the focus was on the puck, not the physicality, as the Rams and Blues put on a perfect example of what playoff hockey is supposed to be. The teams exchanged chances; Ryerson hit the post a number of times. They even had a gaping net but failed to put the puck across the line. After 75 minutes of hockey, Athanasakos got her second goal of the night which sent to Varsity Blues and their fans into a disarm of cheering. Noise ran through the stadium as all the players swamped their goalie at centre ice. They had taken down their biggest rivals on the biggest stage possible.
With the win, the Varsity Blues have booked a couple of tickets. First, they get their shot at the McCaw Cup against the York Lions who defeated the Nipissing Lakers in the other semi-final. After that though, they head to national championships for the second year in a row. “We have to focus on the final, it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere here,” said coach Sunohara. “But after that, it’s the nationals. We had about half our team their last year to get a taste of it, so we feel that we can win it this time around.”
The McCaw Cup final will take place at Varsity Arena on Friday against the York Lions before both York and U of T will head to Charlottetown, PEI for the national championships.
Cover Photo: Ben Steiner @BenSteiner00