After an undefeated season, the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team was set to capture the CIS championship last Saturday night in Alberta. The national championship game featured two of the top teams in the country as the number one ranked University of Alberta Pandas took on the number three ranked U of T Varsity Blues.

U of A, the defending CIS national women’s hockey champions, were looking to repeat last year’s performance. The Blues were also looking to avenge a poor showing at last year’s national championship.

After beating McGill University and the host, University of Regina, the Blues earned the right to challenge for national supremacy. Unfortunately, undefeated U of A stood in the way of the Varsity Blues reclaiming the prize that they worked so hard for since day one of training camp.

The key to the game for the Blues was to score early and then let the team’s defense shut down the powerful offense of the Pandas. U of T was able to do this, as they took a quick lead five minutes into the first period on a goal by forward Justine Todd.

U of T’s first period success was sparked by the team’s tremendous forechecking. TSN award winner Jenny McRae spearheaded the offensive attack. Numerous icings and great defense by the Blues translated into very few offensive opportunities for the high-powered Pandas.

The second period resumed with the Blues continuing their suffocating team defense. This provided U of T with an opportunity to build on their lead, and that is exactly what they did.

Blues forward Bree Kruklis scored on a rebound from a shot by McRae. Kruklis put the puck past the U of A goaltender on a beautiful backhand. The goal gave the Blues a 2-0 lead at 10:08 of the second period.

The Blues’ defensive coverage began to wear off as the second period wore on. U of T had trouble clearing the puck out of their zone and were quickly burned, as the Pandas made the score 2-1, scoring on a rebound against defenseless Blues goalie Alison Houston.

This changed the momentum of the game, as the Blues appeared to be pushed onto their heels. The Pandas took full advantage of this momentum and the support of the raucous home crowd.

A costly penalty by Varsity Blues team captain Kim Malcher gave the Pandas a powerplay. U of A has been deadly when being a woman up throughout the tournament. The Pandas intercepted a clearing attempt by Houston and put the puck into the net, tying the game 2-2 at the 13:45 marker of the second period.

U of T lost some of their composure in the second period, taking another costly penalty. That translated into another powerplay goal for the Panadas. A defensive breakdown in the Blues zone allowed the opponents to take their first lead of the game at the 16:25 marker on the second period. This was the Pandas first lead of the game.

The Blues were happy to escape the second period down only one goal, but the Pandas were still riding high after taking the lead. In the middle of the third period, U of A took a 4-2 lead on a two-on-none breakaway. The attacking forward slipped the puck past Houston, a weak goal the Blues goalie certainly wants back.

U of A looked comfortable with the 4-2 lead and things seemed to be over for U of T. However Karen Hughes’ team refused to quit and came storming back. This high scoring game was not the type of game the Blues wanted to play but they were now put in a position where they had to ditch their defensive responsibility and pour it on offensively.

Senior defender Susie Laska, who was playing in her last game, threw a shot at the net that was tipped by Blues defenseman Safiya Muharuma making the score 4-3. This gave the Blues the momentum they desperately needed as the clock wound down on their season.

U of T, desperate to tie the game, pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. This paid off as they scored with less than a second left in the game. Kruklis scored her second goal of the contest off a rebound given up by the Pandas goaltender.

Sudden-death overtime followed the exciting third period. The action went back and forth as both teams had excellent chances to end the game. Despite their strong push, the storybook ending was not to be for the Varsity Blues, as the Pandas slipped the puck past Houston to claim their second title in as many years.

The loss sours what has been a great year for women’s hockey, one in which U of T dominated the OUA and instilled fear in the hearts of opponents.

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