After a disappointing Game 2 overtime loss on Friday night in North Bay, the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team’s season is over. It was a must-win contest for the Blues, who were down a game in their best-of-three second-round series versus the Nipissing University Lakers after a loss on March 1. Nipissing forward Brooklyn Irwin turned out to be the overtime hero, as the Lakers swept Toronto in two games to earn a spot in the McCaw Cup championship game on March 11.
The semi-finals began last week with the Blues squaring up against the second-seeded Lakers. Toronto was coming off a series-clinching, double-overtime win versus the Queen’s University Gaels in the quarter-finals the previous Sunday night. Forward Meagan O’Brien’s game-winning goal ended a perilous sudden-death overtime session in which the Blues managed to kill off two successive Gaels 5-on-3 opportunities. “We knew, okay, they didn’t score, we have this. It was our game to win,” said captain Kristi Riseley. “We had the energy and the momentum and I think we carried that into the last overtime.”
Both the Blues and the Lakers were backstopped by equally superb goaltending in their respective quarter-final series, setting up a potential goalie duel in the semi-final match-up. Toronto’s Valencia Yordanov finished the series with an impressive .936 save percentage and 1.40 goals against average through all three quarter-final starts, while Nipissing netminder Jacqueline Rochefort held a .932 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average in her three starts.
Game 1 took place at Varsity Arena on Wednesday night. The Lakers dominated play from the opening faceoff, going up 2–0 midway through the frame and stifling the Blues’ counterattacks with hard forechecking, timely shot-blocks, and strong goaltending from Rochefort. Nipissing forward Hunter Mosher’s powerplay marker opened the scoring in the third minute, and star forward Samantha Strassburger added another after a bouncing puck was mishandled by Yordanov and corralled by the attacking Lakers. Later, after Nipissing forced a turnover behind the Blues net, forward Jade Gauthier set up teammate Bronwyn Bolduc’s goal from the slot to make the score 3–0 midway through the second period.
In an otherwise subpar showing from the home team, Toronto veteran Taylor Day shone nearly every time she hit the ice, nimbly breaking up Nipissing passes and forcing turnovers with her speed. She would score the Blues’ first goal of the game in the fourteenth minute of the second. With the Lakers set up in the offensive zone, Day deftly intercepted a pass across the blue line and sped in alone on Rochefort, making no mistake and firing the puck top-shelf to make it 3–1. It was nearly identical to a goal she scored in Game 1 of the quarter-final series against the Gaels. The Lakers answered back when Stacey Henshaw chipped the puck in off a Toronto defender’s stick at 8:12 of the third period. Jessica Robichaud’s late powerplay goal in a goalmouth melee was not enough to mount a comeback for the Blues, as an empty-net goal by forward Natalie Graham sealed Nipissing’s 5–2 Game 1 victory.
The teams travelled to North Bay the following Friday to resume the series at Memorial Gardens. The Blues would need a win to keep their playoff campaign alive, while the Lakers looked to sweep the semi-final series with a victory and await their McCaw Cup championship opponent.
An early goal by Nipissing in the game’s second minute opened the scoring, as Jade Gauthier’s shot from the corner eluded a surprised Yordanov. Strassburger notched an assist on the goal for her fifth point of the playoffs. In one of the many momentum shifts of the game, the Blues would respond with two goals to take a 2–1 lead into the first intermission. Gale scored her first career playoff marker after receiving a cross-crease pass from linemate Alessandra Bianchi and one-timing a shot past netminder Rochefort to tie the game in the tenth minute. The line of Gale, Bianchi, and O’Brien would combine for another goal just a few minutes later, when Gale tipped in O’Brien’s shot from the point to score her second of the game.
The Lakers pressed for the equalizer in a fierce second period, eventually finding it at 5:35. Bolduc took a perfect pass from Gauthier in the slot and fired a shot past Yordanov to make it 2–2. The third period felt like overtime, as the desperate Blues fought for a go-ahead goal to extend the series against a team that was just as intent on ending it right there and then. Yordanov and Rochefort were flawless in the period, each making seven saves before the game entered sudden-death overtime.
Battling for their playoff lives, the Blues came out firing in the overtime period but could not solve Rochefort. The dagger came at 12:12 of the first overtime period with Irwin’s goal during a goalmouth scramble. Forward Kaley Tienhaara tipped the puck toward the Toronto crease, and after a chaotic battle for the loose puck, Irwin jammed the puck past Yordanov to win the game by a score of 3–2. A stunned Toronto squad drifted listlessly across the ice as the Nipissing team spilled onto the rink to celebrate their victory along with the cheering home crowd.
After the second-round sweep, the Toronto women’s team will hang up their skates until the 2017–2018 season begins in October. Fifth-year veteran and team captain Riseley, who will almost certainly not be with the team next year, was optimistic about the future. “I think this team definitely has a lot of heart and passion for the game,” she said. “So I think if they can carry that forward in the next season they’ll be very successful.”