HALIFAX, NS – The 2022 U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship is back in Charlottetown. After losing out on the 2020 championship in light of the first wave of COVID-19, the UPEI Panthers have another shot hosting nationals at the MacLauchlan Arena.
Some would say the nationals field isn’t set out the way anyone predicted early in the season. Two of the top-ranked teams in the country all year, the Toronto Varsity Blues and the Saint Mary’s Huskies, both bowed out early in conference playoffs. In the AUS, nationals regulars StFX X-Women, were taken care of comfortably by the second-seeded UNB Reds.
On the west coast, the Saskatchewan Huskies’ playoff run came as a surprise to many. But with their CanWest semifinal sweep over the top-seeded Mount Royal Cougars, the Huskies booked their ticket to the Maritimes with the UBC Thunderbirds. Also, the OUA competitors are interesting, both playing for the national title for the first time.
There will be one team from each conference play on Thursday and again on Friday. And while teams won’t be able to chase gold after a loss, everyone is guaranteed two games. There will be plenty of action to take in this weekend as eight teams go for the Golden Path Trophy.
It’s been a year of rejuvenation in Vancouver. Cruising to a second-place standing in Canada West, the Thunderbirds did not lose a playoff game in their run to a league championship. As a result, they are at their first nationals since 2017.
UBC seized the season in style too. They are the most potent offence at nationals with 72 goals in 20 regular-season games. Chanreet Bassi led the conference with 22 points this season, while defender Rylind MacKinnon led all scoring on the blueline. The latter was also tied for the most goals in the conference, with 10. That isn’t something you see every day from a blueliner.
Canada West is a defensively-stingy conference, home to some of the best goalies in Canada this season. Guess how many goalies (with at least seven games played) had a goals-against average below two? EIGHT. One of them is UBC’s Elise Hugens. While most other teams played tandems in net, Hugens had the lion’s share of playing time, tied for the league lead in wins. She was even better in the playoffs, posting a .970 save percentage in four games.
Head coach Graham Thomas’s squad kicks off their tournament with a test against another high-scoring team from Nippising in the late game Thursday.
Saskatchewan had a hill to climb as playoffs began, sitting fifth in the conference. But their hot streak that led them to topple the Manitoba Bisons and first-place Mount Royal was enough to secure a berth in Charlottetown. For the Huskies, they’re back for the first time since the 2018 tournament hosted by the Western Mustangs.
Saskatchewan’s calling card is not scoring, but not allowing anyone to score on them. They didn’t have anybody place in the top 25 scorers in Canada West; top scorer Bailee Bourassa tied for 27th in points with 11.
Rather, coach Steve Kook’s club thrives in the low-scoring games. They were the second-best team in goals against this season, only behind the Mount Royal team they conquered. In that series, the Huskies allowed just a goal in two games (while only scoring three themselves).
Much of that is thanks to Camryn Drever, CanWest’s busiest goalie in 2021-22. With 16 starts, she registered goals-against average and save percentage numbers of 1.49 and .939. In playoffs, she made 205 saves in six games, 107 more than the next closest goalie. Ranked fifth at nationals, Drever and Saskatchewan draw a Brock Badgers team that was also middling in the regular season before going off in playoffs. They play the first quarterfinal on Friday.
Brock’s second half of the season has been fascinating. They came into the McCaw Cup playoffs as the coldest team in the conference, winning just two of their final 10 regular season games. It seemed the single-knockout playoffs would be a curse for the Badgers. After all, they hadn’t won a playoff game in over a decade.
Instead, three straight wins later and they are OUA champions for the first time. They’ll also make their first-ever appearance at nationals at UPEI.
Led by coach Margot Page, the Badgers were solid but didn’t necessarily stand out this year anywhere in their game. They have Cassidy Maplethorpe, who led the OUA with 11 goals and was second with 16 points. But Brock had a pedestrian 29 goals in 16 games while allowing 33, the second-most in the OUA West Division.
That changed come playoff time, with Maplethorpe filling the net alongside Carley Blomberg’s offensive help. The Badgers dominated, being outshot in just one game. But Tiffany Hsu was excellent in net, posting a.971 save percentage in the postseason.
After downing traditional OUA powers such as the Guelph Gryphons, Brock turns their focus to Saskatchewan in their U SPORTS quarterfinal on Friday.
Nipissing was second place in the OUA East Division but still finished 14 points behind first-place Toronto. That’s what made the Lakers’ 3-2 division final win over the Varsity Blues so significant. While Toronto had the defensive edge, both teams could score. Nipissing, in particular Jetta Derenoski who had two goals, scored more in the divisional final to advance to the OUA championship game. They would fall there to Brock 2-1.
The Lakers also advance to nationals for the first time ever. They’ve had a strong season throughout. Icing the second-best offence in the conference, Maria Dominico and Brianna Gaffney were the OUA’s top two scorers with 18 and 16 points, respectively. Madison Laberge has contributed as well from the blueline and was the only defender in the conference to score a hat trick this season.
Chloe Marshall and Chantelle Sandquist split the season with solid results. Head coach Darren Turcotte awarded Marshall the net come playoff time and she did not disappoint with a .925 save percentage in three playoff games. Although the defence did their job in the postseason, the Lakers continue to rely heavily on scoring heading into nationals.
They’ll need to score a lot in their quarterfinal, where they match up with offensive juggernaut UBC in Thursday’s late game.
There were almost no surprises in the RSEQ circuit this season. Concordia and McGill were well ahead of the rest of the conference and even though the Stingers won the conference as a lower seed to the Martlets, the teams were neck-and-neck. Concordia, as a result, was rewarded with the tournament’s top seed.
Despite McGill’s higher regular-season finish in the standings, Concordia was the best team in the RSEQ in both goals for and against. Seven of the conference’s top 10 scorers are Stingers, with Stephanie Lalancette (21) and Marie-Pascale Bernier (18). Concordia also has conference rookie of the year Emilie Lavoie (sixth in RSEQ scoring) and second-team all-star goalie Alice Philbert. Bench boss Julie Chu was awarded the league’s coach of the year honour.
Philbert was excellent in the postseason, giving up just two goals in four games. The Stingers scored 12, cruising to sweeps of the Montreal Carabins in the semis then of their foes from McGill in the finals. Despite this year’s success, Concordia hasn’t been to nationals since 2018, when they last won the conference.
The Stingers will have the crowd against them Friday night, where they will go up against the UPEI Panthers in the late quarterfinal.
McGill was rolling along just fine this season until they ran up against Concordia in the league final. The Martlets placed first in the RSEQ with just three losses all year. But their most recent two came in the final, where they were outscored 7-1 by the Stingers. Ranked seventh in the tournament, McGill will be on a mission to get back at Concordia, or whoever else is in their way, in the single-elimination nationals.
The one to watch for McGill is U SPORTS player of the year Jade Downie-Landry. Her 27 points were tops in the conference and country. Marika Labrecque was also strong with 23 points, second in the conference. With only 30 goals conceded in 15 regular-season games, RSEQ first-team all-star Tricia Deguire leads the way between the pipes for coach Alyssa Cecere’s team.
Of all the teams at this year’s nationals, McGill is the most experienced program. With the exception of 2013 and 2018, they’ve made nationals every year since 2003. In that span, they’ve captured four Golden Path Trophies as national champs. Along with hosts UPEI, McGill is the only team that made the trip to Charlottetown for the 2020 championships, before being sent home without playing a game.
McGill will get game action for sure this time. They line up against the UNB Reds in game one of the tournament on Thursday afternoon.
It’s been quite a ride for the UNB Reds women’s hockey program. They spent a decade outside the AUS until 2018, when the varsity program was reinstated. They were solid, although not great, until this year. 2021-22, except for the brief COVID-19 pause, was a perfect year for this team. They finished first in the standings. They were ready for playoff action too, sweeping the St. Thomas Tommies in the AUS semifinals before doing the same to nationals regulars StFX. Now, UNB will take part in their first U SPORTS tournament.
The Reds didn’t stand out offensively this year but have a top offensive threat in veteran Ashley Stratton. She posted 20 points in 2021-22, good for fifth in the AUS. Rookie Payton Hargreaves and third-years Tamina Kehler and Lilly George have all impressed. Defender Jenna MacLean was second in team scoring with 17 points. Goalie Kendra Woodland is also a pillar for this Reds team, impressing with a .937 save percentage this season.
Woodland kept it going in the playoffs, stepping it up to a .959 percentage. She capped off her AUS playoffs with a 46-save shutout on the road at StFX to clinch the banner for UNB. So yeah, safe to say she’s been at her best lately. Stratton also thrived in the postseason with four goals and seven points. Talli Warren scored just twice in the playoffs. Both goals, including in the series-clinching game versus StFX, were game-winners.
Head coach Sarah Hilworth’s Reds roll into the nationals ranked second, but draw a difficult and experienced McGill team in the championship opener Thursday afternoon.
UPEI will enter their third U SPORTS championship this weekend and second as host. They were in the middle of hosting in 2020 when COVID-19 ruined everyone’s plans, before the Panthers could even take the ice. Despite uncertainty at the time, UPEI earned a second chance from U SPORTS to host. The Panthers may be a step behind everyone, as they bowed out of the AUS playoffs a long two weeks ago. But hosting for the second or third straight year (depending on one’s definition), many Panthers players are well-accustomed to the nationals environment by now. After all, the nationals environment has been their home since 2019.
One of those players who has been with UPEI since 2018-19 is Jolena Gillard, who led the AUS with 14 goals and undoubtedly received conference MVP votes. She and Taylor Gillis handled most of the Panthers’ scoring this year, while blueliner Sydney Lyndon chipped in 12 points as well. Camille Scherger has done well this season with a .912 save percentage despite missing UPEI’s first six games of the season. But she will be leaned upon to kick things up a notch at nationals as she chases her first win since Feb. 25.
UPEI did well finning three of four games in February, but struggled in their final three games. After losing back-to-back games in their final two regular-season games, St. Thomas stunned them in their AUS quarterfinal game in Charlottetown with a go-ahead goal in the final minute of regulation. Had they won, UPEI would have faced eventual AUS champion UNB in the semis.
That won’t be the final memory of head coach Bruce Donaldson’s career though as UPEI prepares for the late game on Friday. They will face the RSEQ champs, top-seeded Concordia.
The championships begin at 3:00 p.m. local/2:00 p.m Eastern. CBC Sports will carry streams of each game.
Photo: Guelph Gryphons national championship in 2019 (U SPORTS)