The Thunderbirds are off to their second straight Canada West final after winning their best-of-three weekend series against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
By winning the semifinal, the ‘Birds also secured a place at the national championships, which are set to begin on March 16.
“Getting through that first series and getting to nationals was great,” said head coach Graham Thomas. “That’s behind us and now we can dial it and focus on playing our game. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing and that’s when we're at our best.”
The league-best T-Birds posed a tough test for the fifth-seeded Huskies. Coming into the playoffs, the UBC had dominated the University of Saskatchewan (USask) during the regular season, winning the season series 3–1 while outscoring them 13–5.
But this semifinal matchup was almost too much for the ‘Birds to handle.
“They pushed us to the brink and went as far as they could go. We knew they were a great team. Full marks to them for sure,” said Thomas.
The series, hard-won in front of a boisterous contingency of Huskies fans, was hotly contested every step of the way.
It began with Friday’s game one, which was a real defensive clinic for both teams.
Although the Huskies conceded a massive 50 shots on goal, only a handful of them came off of quality scoring chances. For the most part, the Huskies excelled at keeping the Birds to the perimeter and smothering rushes into the defensive zone.
The Birds spent little time in their own end, evidenced by the total of nine shots on goal that were all turned aside by starter Elise Hugens. They played a disciplined, resilient game and refused to allow the accumulation of missed chances to get to them.
The only goal of the game came midway through the third when a Sophia Gaskell point shot found its way through traffic. The contest was a hard-won battle that sent the T-Bird faithful home happy.
“They play very defensive and they play very hard and they’ve got great goaltending. We were definitely expecting it to be a really close defensive series. We were hoping that we would have a few more goals,” said Thomas.
Saturday’s game two was also a stifling affair.
The ‘Birds came flying out of the gate as the energy in the building seemed heightened. No doubt the ‘Birds were eager to send the Huskies home early.
However, the game was fraught with missed chances in the offensive zone that sunk the Birds’ momentum. They were shut out on 34 shots.
Meanwhile, Huskies forward Sophie Lalor capitalized on a couple of missed assignments by the T-Birds’ defence and potted two goals. Her second-period marker was the first time Hugens had surrendered a goal since January 27, ending her shutout streak at four games.
The 2–0 loss also ended the T-Birds’ win streak at 13 games and was the first time they’ve lost on home ice.
“We were feeling the pressure,” said Thomas. “When we feel the pressure or we’re too worried about the results or what’s on the line in the game, we’re not playing too well. We’re gripping the sticks, we’re just slower to react, and just very robotic out there.”
But heading into the series-deciding game three on Sunday, that loss might have been just what the doctor ordered.
The Birds were invigorated after Saturday’s disappointment. They set the tone with an early goal off a nice tip by rookie forward Cassidy Rhoades.
They played with great intensity throughout the game and made the Huskies pay for some crucial mistakes. It was a return to the dominant play style that has been the trademark of this team all season long.
The ‘Birds added two more goals to end USask’s season and move on to the Canada West final.
“We just needed a real reset,” said Thomas. “We needed that loss and it just let us reset and focus on the process of what we need to focus on. Full marks for how we responded.”
It was a roller coaster weekend of hockey that featured a little bit of everything, and one that this team is glad to have behind them.
“It's just all of the emotions all in one within a weekend,” said Thomas.
“That’s why I love playoff hockey. The season can end and it can be a lot of heartache and it can also be the best feeling in the world. Winning a series is literally the best feeling in the world.”
The ‘Birds will host the Mount Royal University Cougars this weekend as they seek to defend their title.