Coming off a first-round playoff bye, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team won its first of a three-game semifinal series against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds Friday afternoon.
Backstopped by goalie Jessica Vance, the hard-skating Huskies beat the Thunderbirds 2-0. Vance made 22 saves for the win. When combined with her regular season play, she earned her third consecutive shutout and 10th overall on the season.
“It’s great having her back there,” Huskies captain Kaitlin Willoughby said of Vance. “We have a lot of confidence in her and that gives us confidence in each other.”
Willoughby said that overall, the game felt good. “All four lines were rolling, and all three defensive pairs were rolling. That was huge; it allowed our team to have quick, short shifts and stay fresh.”
Vance, Kaitlin and her sister Morgan all have roots in Prince Albert; the three of them played for the Midget AAA Bears hockey team before moving on to college hockey.
The first ten minutes of the game resembled a testing-the-waters contest, with each team getting a sense of the other.
At the mid-point of the first period, UBC established sustained zone pressure against the Huskies; they ran a cycle system in the U of S zone for about a minute and a half. But they couldn’t crack the Huskies goalie.
Not long after, the Huskies opened the game’s scoring at 14:38 of the period.
Forward Emily Upgang was working the puck in the corner of the Thunderbirds’ zone. Defenders were on her, trying to regain possession.
Meanwhile, fellow forward Brooklyn Haubrich slipped behind a pair of UBC skaters and parked herself in front of goalie Tory Micklash’s crease. Upgang spotted her teammate and fed her a quick pass.
Haubrich got the puck on her tape, forehand, and put it up, top-shelf on Micklash for the quick score.
The teams skated to a scoreless second period, with the Huskies controlling the majority of the tempo, pace and puck possession. Although, UBC created some offensive chances early in the period to test Vance.
A Thunderbirds skater found herself on a breakaway at the Huskies’ blue line early in the period; once in on Vance, the UBC skater went with a forehand shot on the Huskies goalie. She beat the netminder, but was an inch wide on her shot and was left with the metal clang of the goal post.
Similarly, forward Tiffany Chiu slipped by two Huskies defenders with the puck and created a short breakaway for herself on Vance around the 14:00 mark of the period. Her shot was just high of the goal.
The third period was a gritty one between the two teams; the Huskies continued their fast skating and their hard forechecking, while the Thunderbirds hit the ice with more jump and energy for the final 20 minutes.
UBC found success in matching the Huskies’ pressure, creating a couple hectic scrambles in front of Vance.
Up until the third period, the Thunderbirds had been playing “a passive forecheck,” Willoughby explained. “Then when they were down a goal, their coach told them to pressure us. They came hard at us and forced us to step up. It took us a while to adjust.
“We knew we had to bear down and be defensive.”
Around the 12-minute mark, a UBC player received the puck from a pass while alone in the slot in front of Vance; a U of S defenceman knocked her over with a hard check. No infraction was called on the play.
Shortly after, the Huskies made the score 2-0 on a long wrist shot just inside the Thunderbirds’ blue line. As soon as defenceman Kira Bannatyne crossed over, she fired a low shot that fooled UBC’s goalie.
Despite two separate man-advantage situations in the game’s final five minutes, UBC couldn’t crack Vance, thanks in part to her stingy defencemen and the Huskies continued forecheck into the Thunderbirds’ zone.
Down two and one skaters (due to a penalty kill situation and UBC pulling its goalie to gain an extra skater), the Huskies managed to contain the puck in the Thunderbirds’ zone for portions of that final five minute stretch.
The Huskies and Thunderbirds resume their best-of-three series on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Saskatoon’s Rutherford arena.
If the Huskies win the game, they win the series and will advance to the Canada West women’s hockey final; they would play either Manitoba or Alberta in such a scenario.
Alberta advanced from the quarter-final Canada west series last weekend, after beating the University of Regina Cougars two games to none.
Albert and Manitoba began their series on Friday night. A game 1 final score was not available by press time.