Halifax, N.S. – Olivia Eustace may have had just four shots on Friday night against the UPEI Panthers, but that doesn’t do any justice to how many times she almost ended the game by herself.
With five minutes left in the third period, the Dalhousie Tigers star danced around a pair of Panthers’ defenders before wiring a shot high. Then, in the final minute, she received the pass looking at an open net over Sarah Forsythe’s left pad. But the toe drag attempt breezed the post just wide.
Those golden chances are tough to come by — in the run of a regular game. There’s no such thing as that in the playoffs.
And sure enough, Eustace got one more shot. This time, off a failed clearance attempt by the visitors, Alix Yallowega’s point shot was deflected by linemate Brooklyn Paisley. The knucklepuck ricocheted off Forsythe right to a wide-open Eustace. Spearing the puck into the top shelf, she sealed the Dal win — the team’s first in the postseason since 2018.
“We were doing what coach wanted us to do, to get bodies in front of the net. [Paisley’s] tip went right off the goalie’s pad to me for an easy empty-net goal. So it was all my teammates,” said the overtime hero.
“That was a good feeling, especially heading into the fifth period. Everyone was getting really tired.”
The game was a playground see-saw when it came to momentum swings. All you need to look at is the game’s second period. On two different occasions, the Panthers took the lead, only to be followed a minute or two later by a Dal response.
We saw the inverse in overtime: a flying Dal start, this time answered by extended UPEI pressure. The Panthers led the shot total on Friday 40-29 — 8-2 in the second overtime period. That’s right, the two shots on that winning-goal play were Dal’s first of the frame.
“That’s been our mandate all year, to make sure we respond when the other team gets a goal, no matter what the situation,” said Tigers assistant coach Keifer House. Head coach Troy Ryan — who’s been with the team most of the year — wasn’t behind the bench on Friday.
“Resilience is the best way to describe our group. They’ve found a way to battle through a lot of things this year and tonight was another good example.”
The Panthers came out flying to start, rarely out of the Dal zone. Much of that was thanks to the defence, playing flawless hockey by getting the puck up the ice.
Until they couldn’t, which was the icebreaker. As the Panthers’ defence coughed up the puck to the right of their net, it bounced back to Gabrielle Noordijk. Her shot bounced off Forsythe in net right to a wide-open Izzy Weist. The captain had no trouble sliding it into the empty cage for Dal’s first of the postseason.
That was one of few early scoring chances, as most of the play had been slowed down with strong neutral-zone counterattacks and physical play. The Panthers threw a pair of uncalled bodychecks in the first 10 minutes. At last, a bodychecking penalty was assessed — against Noordijk of the Tigers.
The Panthers made them pay, eventually. About 45 seconds into the 5-on-4, a mad scramble in front forced the puck back to Rachel Richards at the blue line. Her shot went through Dal goalie Grace Beer, then somewhere else no one could get a finger on. The initial shot looked to hit the post, but even the Panthers’ efforts to clean up the rebound didn’t stand as the whistle had been blown.
The UPEI squad flew by the bench as the referee signalled no goal, but a discussion with all four officials — plus the goal judge — ensued. After about two minutes, the goal was confirmed and credited to Richards. According to the officials, the initial shot had gone in before any whistle. Tie game after 20.
As Dal had a fast start to begin the second, Forsythe was ready in goal. Starting with a stand-up denial on Paisley, she followed with a slide across out of nowhere to deny a two-on-one — followed by a goalmouth scramble where she somehow found the shot. The Tigers then missed two other two-on-one attacks — an issue that plagued the home team all evening.
That would end up being big for her team. As play moved the other way, UPEI’s McKinley Nelson burned a Dal defender in a race for the puck, coming away on a 2-on-1. She set up a wide-open Kaiya Maracle, who fired it much sooner than Beer’s blocker was ready to give UPEI their first lead.
That only lasted 57 seconds though. As Dal went the other way, Regan Duffy fired a high shot through a crowd from the boards. No one saw it — including Forsythe — as it sailed into the net’s corner to tie it at two. Everyone in the Form gasped in surprise after that, but perhaps Duffy was the most shocked. She — who missed six games in the second half of the season — last scored Oct. 7 against the Mount Allison Mounties.
Even before the goals started flowing, the teams saw a rocky ride of a second period coming.
“It was a good statement game for us,” House said. “It’s how we’ve played all year; we’ve come back from behind a lot. We took that mentality coming in and felt comfortable being down, knowing that we’ve been resilient all year.”
The second half of the period was brought to you by power plays. On a hooking call against Dal’s Weist, UPEI directed eight shots at Beer, all turned aside. But four seconds after the penalty’s expiry, the Panthers’ pressure forced the puck to defender Ashley McCutcheon, who went high-glove on Beer to make it 3-2 UPEI.
Again, Dal responded quickly — now on a power play of their own. With around 30 seconds remaining on the advantage, Alix Yallowega’s shot from long couldn’t be controlled by Forsythe. The puck slid to Abby Wamboldt to the goalie’s right, who had all day to put in the rebound. The fired-up Wamboldt shouted at the crowd with her fist up after tying the game at three — the score after two periods.
The second frame was Beer’s busiest of the evening. With 14 saves in the period and 37 on Friday, That’s the busiest game she’s had since Jan. 7, when she stopped 47 pucks — also against UPEI.
“I was keeping the mentality that it could be our last game, because it could have been our last game. So I had to stay mentally ready for anything that came my way,” the rookie goalie said.
By comparison, the third period was much quieter when it came to scoring. With a mix of fast and physical hockey, it set the tone for the first overtime that was controlled by Dal. Forsythe needed to pull out some heroics a couple of times, especially as Paisley threw some tricky shots her way.
The tone flipped in the second overtime though as UPEI went on an early-period power play. It was the team’s first advantage of the evening without a goal — either during the power play or a few seconds after expiry. Yet, it did give the Panthers a ton of zone time for their best stretch of play since the second frame. UPEI’s Orianna MacNeil, for one, almost ended it on a sneaky shot once. MacNeil — who picked up the assist on Taylor Gillis’s winner in game one in Charlottetown — had a team-leading seven shots.
And that’s where they will play once more on Sunday afternoon — well, just outside Charlottetown at the APM Centre in Cornwall, P.E.I. While the Panthers look for their first series win since 2020, Dal is eyeing the same for the first time since 2015.
“Our program’s come a long way,” Eustace said. “I think we’re just getting started.”
Photo: Luke Dyment