Halifax, N.S. – Game three was frustrating for the StFX X-Women. In a matchup where the team struggled to get consistent scoring going when they needed it (save for Maggy Burbidge’s scoring — but that’s nearly every game), it was StFX’s defence in game four that tore the Saint Mary’s Huskies to pieces.
In that order — offence, then defence — is how the X-Women went down the checklist on Monday night.
Offensive doubts? Solved in the game’s first 7:31, with the conference’s leading scorer Burbidge assisting on all the goals.
“Our biggest goal was to have a good start and I think we did that,” said X centre Lea MacLeod. “I think that was probably our best start of the year.”
But what about that defence? In game four, that became another duty for arguably the AUS’s top forward line.
Especially, taking on that responsibility was MacLeod. She didn’t only lead the team with seven shots and contribute the final of X’s goals in its 4-0 win on Monday night — that’s a typical game for the centre.
She was out for almost every second faceoff and shift all evening. She killed crucial second-period penalties, laying out for the blocks. And her hockey was virtually mistake-free — much like that of many teammates, in possibly X’s cleanest game of an intense series against their rivals from SMU.
Thanks to that, StFX is onto the AUS finals against the UNB Reds — a rematch of last year’s championship — and the U SPORTS nationals in a few weeks in Montreal.
“We stress the D zone. It’s the most important part of our game,” MacLeod said — an unexpected point from a team that outscores its opponents by such ridiculous amounts. The X-Women were the AUS’s highest-scoring team this season by nearly 30 goals, while four of the conference’s top five leading scorers wear the blue and white.
But one figure often overlooked? The fact that only one team (UNB) has allowed fewer goals than X this year. MacLeod embodied that Monday night.
“Any time anybody blocks the puck, it’s awesome. For me to do it, that’s something special.”
Right off the opening faceoff, StFX’s big guns knew they had to make a statement early. That’s exactly what they did. After a couple of early shots, Chloe Vukosa threw the puck out front as Sophie Scully slid toward her. But the goalie was half a second too late, as the puck bounced off her pad and into the net. 38 seconds in, StFX had their first lead since game two.
It didn’t stop there. Right as the top StFX line finished their next shift, Abby Lewis jumped off the bench. She took off right for the slot in front of Scully’s net, where Burbidge fed her the puck in great time. Slapping the bouncing puck, it eluded Scully’s blocker for the second goal in three minutes for X.
The X-Women got their first power play of the game moments later and ran with it. Now, Lauren Dabrowski snuck a low shot through the screen — 3-0 X-Women. That was it for game three hero Scully, as Ridleigh Hansen entered the SMU crease in relief.
“That was our best start of the series,” X coach Ben Berthiaume said. “We came out and were ready to go off the bat, which was huge. Then we got some early goals. We continued that on the whole way through.”
On the other bench, Huskies coach Chris Larade said it was a “start from hell.” It was tough to ignore the tone that X’s jump set for the rest of the game.
“After the first eight or nine minutes, we were alright,” he said. “We knew they were going to come out strong. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have an answer early on.”
X’s defensive side began to take over in the second, after struggling there in game three. The gem of the period was their play on the penalty kill. Leading the way on the kill were MacLeod and Burbidge — usually the ones who fill the other net.
As the Huskies pushed in close on a power play, MacLeod laid out to block a shot in the stomach from SMU’s Ellen Laurence. As she got up, she stopped a follow-up chance from Abigail MacKenzie from nearly the same spot.
The puck bounced to Aimee O’Neill, but her shot from the slot was blocked once more — again from MacLeod. On the third try, the X centre got it out of the zone, a much-needed clear on the PK.
Berthiaume said a big part of X’s defensive response in game four was to have his stars be his stars — in all situations.
“You want to match up against their best, so we did that,” he said. “We have a couple of lines that can handle that [top SMU] line which is good. The difference tonight was our commitment to the D zone and getting back.”
The second period was the best period for the Huskies, but they had nothing on the scoreboard to show for it — a reversal of their offensive flair in game three.
“I liked the way our girls battled back,” Larade said. “I thought we were probably the better team for good chunks of time. But the damage was done.”
In goal, Jamie Johnson came up clutch a few times in the middle frame. Once, after the X penalty kills, SMU’s O’Neill broke through the Ella VandeSompel-Josie Chisholm defence pairing. But on the breakaway deke, Johnson had no trouble following O’Neill across the ice to leave the Husky no chance.
After struggling to find her groove 24 hours ago, the X goalie was in the zone on Monday.
“It was kind of like the reverse of yesterday,” said Johnson, who finished the game with a 31-save shutout. The scoring cushion early in the game helped her settle in from the get-go.
“[The lead] helped me. Because I knew from there, I just needed to play for the girls.”
The third period was arguably the best for StFX, because they made sure nothing happened on either side. As SMU registered their fewest shots of the game in the final period, the X-Women constantly steered them into the wall.
StFX added another late — from MacLeod — stifling comeback hopes for the hosts once and for all. As for the fourth year’s memories of smashing her stick late in X’s game three loss, as she struggled to get that important late goal? They’re now distant ones, as she got it to seal the deal in game four.
Next up is UNB, the same team that sent X packing in last year’s conference finals. For Johnson, it’s a crucial matchup, given it will be a war in the crease against AUS MVP Kendra Woodland. Johnson was on the losing end of that battle last March — still fresh on her mind.
“I’m super excited. It was the same thing last year and we didn’t come out winning. So we want a little bit of revenge on them,” she said. “[Woodland’s] a great goalie, so it’s going to be a fun matchup for sure.”
MHKY: Acadia Axemen 2 – 1 Saint Mary’s Huskies (2OT)
With the series on the line at home, the Acadia Axemen stretched out everything they had to tire out the Saint Mary’s Huskies — a team they’ve struggled to solve through the first two games of their AUS semifinal.
They didn’t have a great time dealing with Jeremy Helvig in SMU’s net. The goalie stopped Acadia 41 times in four and a half periods of play.
Thankfully for the Axemen, Conor McCollum outperformed him with 51 saves. That gave enough time for Acadia to find their game-winner midway through the second overtime period — a Brendan Sellan tip underneath Helvig and an Andrew H. McCain arena into a frenzy.
Adam McMaster got the limited scoring going very early — a power-play goal 25 seconds into the game. But Helvig shut the door from there, starting one of two long swaths of scoreless hockey in the matchup. Those were separated only by a crucial Nathan Dunkley marker for SMU early in the third — 22 seconds in to be exact. That would end up being the only one to beat McCollum — who has bounced back in the series after getting pulled in game one, a 7-1 loss.
“He’s the reason we’re here right now,” Sellan said of McCollum to the AUSTV broadcast post-game. “He’s our backbone.”
After a lengthy game with nearly 100 combined shots, neither side will get much of a break. They are back on the McCain Arena ice Tuesday night at 7 p.m. SMU advances to the AUS final with a win, while Acadia looks to force a game five in Halifax on Thursday.
Cover photo: The StFX X-Women’s Lea MacLeod (left) and Chloe Vukosa were fired up after Vukosa’s goal 38 seconds into their game four win versus the Saint Mary’s Huskies. Vukosa’s tally ended up being the game-winner as X will advance to the AUS final versus the UNB Reds. (Brad Chandler)