Huskies advance to Can. West, national championships

University of Saskatchewan Huskies goalie Jessica Vance watches the play in her zone during U-Sports playoff action against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds on Feb. 23, 2018 at Saskatoon’s Rutherford Arena. --Kayle Neis/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team followed up their Friday afternoon vitctory with a 2-1 win Saturday to sweep the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds two games to none in Canada West playoff action.

The series win gives the Huskies a berth in the Canada West final series and in the U-Sports national college championship tournament in March.

After their 2-0 win on Friday, the Huskies faced some early adversity Saturday; UBC jumped out to a 1-0 lead midway through the first period after an even-strength goal from Alexa Ranahan at 10:38.

“Saturday they really came out hard,” Huskies goalie Jessica Vance said. “I guess they were more physical on Saturday. I think they really showed that in the fist period; I think our team kind of realized that they don’t want to go home and they’re playing for their season. It was a different game.”

Vance and the Huskies shut out the Thunderbirds on Friday, thanks in part to her play in net and a dominant, fast Huskies’ game plan that saw the team control puck possession and the shot clock.

The Thunderbirds looked somewhat like they lacked drive and energy through the first two periods on Friday; they upped their tempo in the third period of that game to challenge the Huskies.

Vance said she thought that UBC might have been carrying that momentum into the first period of Saturday’s game.

By her estimation, she said it took her team the full first 20 minutes to get going.

The UofS needed only the second period to mount its comeback.

Prince Albert native Kaitlin Willoughby opened the scoring for her team while on the powerplay at 11:20.

Just over three minutes later, forward Chloe Smith scored what would be the game-winning goal, putting the Huskies up 2-1 with assists from Kayla Kirwan and Bailee Bourassa.

Vance pointed out that the crowd for the second game was the biggest the Huskies had seen this year at Rutherford Arena.

As for the second period, she said, “We just saw everything all at once. It took us a while to get it together. The second period I think we dominated; it just took us maybe that first period to get going.”

The two teams played to a scoreless third period.

In total, Vance saved 27 of 28 Thunderbirds’ shots.

“It’s a pretty good feeling. They’ve won the past few years. So it’s pretty special to beat them. It wasn’t an easy series, so it’s a good feeling to be going into the finals.”

Last year, UBC won the Canada West finals by beating the Alberta Pandas. The Thunderbirds would go on to win a bronze medal in the national college championship.

With their berth in the Canada West final this year, the Huskies automatically earn an entry into this year’s eight-team national college championship tournament, which will be held from March 15 to March 18 at Western University in London, Ont.

The Huskies will face the University of Manitoba Bisons in this year’s Canada West final.

How the team fares against Manitoba will determine how it’s seeded for that national tournament.

The Bisons are coming off of two consecutive overtime wins against Alberta to win their semifinal series two games to none. On Friday, they won 2-1 in the first overtime on a goal from Alexandra Anderson; on Saturday, the Bisons needed more than three periods of overtime to emerge with a 1-0 victory over Alberta – Jordyn Zacharias netted the winner at 13:30 in the fourth overtime period.

Looking to that series, Vance said she expects her team to be more rested, given that the Huskies didn’t need overtime for either win; but she cautioned that the Bisons will likely be riding a wave of momentum after taking down the Pandas, who were last year’s national college champions.

The netminder also underscored the presence of Manitoba forward and Finnish national Venla Hovi.

She was credited with the main assist on Finland’s game-winning goal in the bronze medal game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia at this year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

“We’ll have to watch out for her. The last time we played them, she wasn’t there. She was with the Olympic team, so she’s an addition to their team we’ll have to watch,” Vance said.

During regular season play, the Huskies and the Bisons split their season series at two games apiece. One of those Huskies wins was an away game and one was a home game; ditto for the Bisons.

The teams begin their best-of-three series on Friday at 7 p.m. All games will be played in Winnipeg at Wayne Fleming Arena. Game 2 and (if necessary) game 3 will be played at the same time at the same arena on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

The series will also mark somewhat of a special occasion for Vance – she’ll have a chance to take on her former team, the same one that benched her in favour of two fourth-year goalies after she recovered from an ACL injury to start the 2016-17 college hockey season.

When asked about that part, she said the upcoming series isn’t so much about revenge, it’s more so about motivation to face and beat the Bisons to win the Canada West title this year.

“I guess there is a little bit more of motivation, because I was there and stuff like that, but I think that no matter what team we play, it’s going to be a huge success,” she said.

For Huskies supporters unable to make it to Winnipeg for the three-game series, Canada West offers live-streamed games on its website, www.canadawest.org.