By Earl Zukerman & Michel Belanger
OTTAWA – The McGill Martlets will be looking for their fourth CIS women’s hockey championship this weekend in Fredericton despite being ranked as the No. 5 seed heading into the national tournament.
The Scotiabank CIS championship, hosted for the first time by St. Thomas University, gets under way on Thursday and culminates on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Atlantic Time with the gold-medal final, live on Sportsnet 360. All nine games from the six-team competition will also be webcast live on www.CIS-SIC.tv.
The Montreal Carabins hope to repeat as champs, just like a year ago when they captured their first-ever banner in only their fourth season in the league. A year removed from their triumph in Toronto, the Carabins will battle a completely revamped field this week as none of the teams set to take the ice at the Grant Harvey Centre had qualified for the 2013 tourney.
Joining the RSEQ champions in Fredericton are the second-seeded Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks (OUA champs), No. 3 Moncton Aigles Bleues (AUS champs), No. 4 Saskatchewan Huskies (Canada West champs), No. 5 McGill Martlets (RSEQ finalists), as well as the host St. Thomas Tommies, ranked sixth.
McGill and Laurier are perennial contenders who missed the championship last year for the first time in 11 and 10 campaigns, respectively. The same can’t be said about Moncton, Saskatchewan and St. Thomas, who are set to make their third, second and first appearances at the event.
In the round-robin portion of the 2014 tourney, Montreal, Saskatchewan and St. Thomas will skate in Pool A, while Laurier, Moncton and McGill battle in Group B. On Thursday, the Hawks and Martlets square off in the opener at 2 p.m. ADT (1 p.m. Eastern) and the Carabins kick off their title defence against the Huskies at 7 p.m.
The Carabins have been a remarkable story since joining the CIS women’s hockey circuit in 2009-2010. After qualifying for the national championship in their inaugural season, they reached the CIS final for the first time in Year 3, dropping a 5-1 gold-medal decision to a star-studded Calgary squad led by Hayley Wickenheiser, before avenging that loss last winter with a 3-2 win over the Dinos in the title match.
This season, the Carabins picked up right where they left off and went 17-3 in conference play, losing only to powerhouse McGill. After finishing one game back of the Martlets in the RSEQ standings, Montreal had the last laugh in the best-of-three league final, winning in three games to claim its second straight Quebec banner and tie the overall season series at 4-4.
Boasting the top offence in the country with an average of 4.65 goals per contest in league play, the reigning champs are led Ariane Barker (17-15-32 in 19 GP) and team captain Kim Deschênes (13-17-30 in 20 GP), who captained the Canadian squad to a gold medal at the Winter Universiade in Italy, last December. Deschênes was also named MVP of last year’s CIS championship.
“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far this season. Now that we’ve made it back to the national championship, our goal is to return to the final,” says head coach Isabelle Leclaire, who was an assistant coach at the Trentino Universiade. We don’t feel any pressure. We’ve been in this situation before. The difference is, this time around, we have experience on our side and with that comes confidence.
“Even though we’re seeded No. 1, once you’re on the ice, it means nothing. We saw it last year. We won our opener 1-0 in overtime against host Toronto, finally scoring on our 54th shot. Two years ago, we were seeded sixth and we beat the top-ranked team in our first game.”
One thing that can be said about Montreal’s first opponent on Thursday night, Saskatchewan, is that they are battle tested heading into their first CIS championship appearance since 2004 – and the second in program history.
After finishing second in Canada West in league play with a solid 18-4-6 mark, the Huskies were pushed to the limit of three games in both their playoff series, by UBC in the semis and Regina in the conference final. All three contests in the final required at least two overtime periods, with Game 2 – a 2-1 Huskies loss – decided in the fourth extra frame.
“We are fortunate and excited to be the Canada West representative at the CIS championship,” says head coach Steve Kook. “The tight battles we had to earn the berth are a real testament to the overall strength of our conference this season. We are a young team with only one player having competed in a national championship before, so we are very excited at the opportunity to compete against the best teams in university hockey in Canada.
“Our success has come as a result of our team play and depth on our roster. Continued outstanding goaltending and a high level of a will to compete will be critical to our success at the championship.”
Rounding out the Pool A roster, St. Thomas ended the regular season on a high note, winning five of its last six games, before being eliminated in two straight by Mount Allison in the first round of the playoffs.
In their first-ever appearance at the CIS tournament, the Tommies hope to get solid goaltending from fifth-year senior Kristin Wolfe, who was named a first-team AUS all-star after she posted a 2.04 goals against average and a .929 save percentage during the regular schedule.
“We are tremendously proud to be competing at the nationals. Excitement has grown around the team and the community and now it culminates with what will be the biggest women’s hockey event in New Brunswick’s history,” says head coach Peter Murphy. “Our focus will be to represent both St. Thomas and the community to the best of our ability. We know the players will bring their game to a new level under this high level competition.”
In Pool B, while McGill is the lowest seed at No. 5, many still consider the Martlets as the favourites to advance out of the group.
After all, the Martlets topped 13 of 16 weekly national polls this season and enter the championship with a 26-4 overall record versus CIS competition, with all four losses coming against top-seeded Montreal. McGill’s overall mark includes non-conference wins over both their Group B opponents, a 5-3 home victory against Laurier back on Sept. 21 and a 9-0 domination of Moncton on Dec. 27, also on home ice.
Despite the loss of last year’s CIS most outstanding player, Mélodie Daoust, who spent the season with Canada’s Olympic team, the 2013-14 edition of the Martlets still has plenty of firepower and was the second-most potent offensive unit in the country in league play (4.00 gpg) thanks to the likes of CIS MVP Katia Clément-Heydra, who won the RSEQ scoring crown with 40 points (13-27-40) in 20 games, as well as Gabrielle Davidson, who set a conference record with 28 goals in 20 contests, one shy of the single-season CIS mark.
Davidson and Clément-Heydra were two of Canada’s brightest stars at the Trentino Universiade last December, finishing 1-2 in tournament scoring with 22 and 18 points in only seven contests, respectively.
“Being seeded fifth is what I expected, so let’s get ‘er going,” says 14-year bench boss Peter Smith, who has led his program to three national titles and 11 podium finishes (3-3-5) in 13 previous appearances at the CIS championship, including back-to-back gold-medal triumphs over Laurier in 2008 and 2009. “We’re not going to look ahead to a possible rematch against the Carabins. We’ve got two worthy opponents in our pool (Laurier and Moncton), so all our focus right now is on our first game versus Laurier. We’ve played them a lot over the years and won in our only meeting earlier this year. They’re always good and it will be a match-up of two teams that like to play hard against each other.”
Like Saskatchewan in Canada West, Laurier was pushed to the limit of three games in both the OUA semis and final, by Toronto and Queen’s. In the pre-season, in addition to their 5-3 loss to McGill, the Golden Hawks had a pair of classic battles against top-seeded Montreal, winning 3-2 in a shootout on the road (Sept. 20) and dropping a 5-4 OT decision in Kingston (Sept. 28).
The Hawks are the second-most decorated team at this year’s tournament with six CIS medals (1-4-1) in 10 previous appearances, including their lone title in 2005. This season, Laura Brooker, a member of the gold medal-winning Universiade team, paced Laurier’s fifth-ranked offence with 26 points (12-14-26) in 24 games.
“Our team is a hard working group that has a balanced attack with contributions coming from all lines as well as some offensively minded players on the blueline,” says Rick Osborne, in his 11th campaign at the helm. “This, combined with strong team defence and outstanding goaltending, has us looking forward to a competitive and enjoyable experience at nationals.”
Third-seeded Moncton turned things around in the new year after a slow start to the season. The Aigles Bleues showed a subpar 4-9 conference record at the December break but won 10 of 11 league games in January and February to finish third in the AUS standings. They continued to roll in the playoffs with six victories in eight contests, including a 2-0 whitewash against Mount Allison in the third and deciding game of the league final.
Rookie netminder Gabrielle Forget emerged as a star in the late stages of the regular season and posted a 1.58 goals against average and a .931 save percentage in her university debut. She made 27 save to earn the shutout in the last game of the AUS championship series.
“We’re looking forward to the CIS championship,” says head coach Denis Ross, who guided Moncton to its lone CIS medal in 2009 thanks to a third-place finish. “We’ve been on a roll for the past two months and our goal is to play our best hockey this week. We had three tough playoff series, which prepared us well for this championship.”