The Varsity Blues women’s hockey team came heartbreakingly close to advancing to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Championships this past week, losing their Ontario University Athletics (OUA) semi-finals series to the Guelph Gryphons 2-1.
The loss brought one of the most successful Varsity Blues hockey seasons in recent memory to a close. It signaled the end of an era, with star goaltender Nicole Kesteris, playing her last game in the Blue and White.
Following a first round dusting off the University of Windsor Lancers, the Blues opened their second, three game series on the road in Guelph, losing 3-2 in double overtime.
The Blues opened up a 2-0 lead midway through the second period of game one with goals from veteran forwards Amanda Ricker, and Taylor Day.
However, Gryphons battled back, with defender-turned-forward Leigh Shilton pulling her team within a goal before the end of the frame. The third period saw Guelph press aggressively for the equalizer; forcing Kesteris to make save after save.
The Gryphons ultimately succeeded in tying the game with just over three minutes to play. Third-year forward Christine Grant managed to corral the loose puck in a scramble in front of the U of T goal, and fired it past Kesteris to force overtime.
After the opening extra frame proved fruitless, Gryphons sophomore Kelly Gribbons scored near the mid-point of the second period to give her team the victory.
Down 1-0 in the series, and with their season on the line, the Blues came back in game two, defeating the Gryphons 2-1 in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The opening frame featured some of the best hockey seen at Varsity Arena this season. Both teams played near-identical brands of tight-checking, high-tempo hockey, resulting in a deadlock after 20 minutes. Kesteris was solid as ever, with an incredibly calm breakaway stop on Gribbons the highlight.
The Blues opened the scoring early in the second period. Rookie forward Lauren Straatman came flying down the far side on a two-on-two rush, and threw a perfect backdoor pass to fellow rookie Kassandra Roache. Roache made no mistake, burying the puck short-side past Guelph goaltender Stephanie Nehring’s outstretched glove.
The Gryphons responded by pouring on the pressure, tying the game just six minutes later on a great rush by star forward Kaitlyn Mora. Mora found teammate Kaitlin Lowy open in the slot, and the rookie forward snapped a shot just beneath Kesteris’ blocker for the equalizer.
The Blues proved resilient, answering back in the closing minutes of the period. Sniper Taylor Day sprung rookie Becki Bowering on a breakaway with a nifty backhand pass. Nehring made the initial save on Bowering, but was helpless on her rebound attempt.
Rather than sit back in a defense shell for the final 20 minutes, U of T came roaring out of the gate in the third period, taking the play to the Gryphons in the opening minutes.
As the period wore on, Guelph began to take charge, but the Blues played great team defense. The Gryphons had several late power plays (including a six-on-four advantage with 3:30 to play), but U of T held on to force a third and deciding match.
Game two was perhaps the best match the Blues played all season. Up against an arguably superior team, the women were stellar, stepped up with timely blocks and clearances, and beat the Gryphons with secondary goal scoring. It was a great win, and one indicative of some of CIS’s best coaching.
U of T came to play in game three, outshooting the Gryphons 9-3 in the first period. Unfortunately, as had been a concern throughout the season, goal scoring dried up, and the Blues were unable to solve Nehring, losing 2-0.
Third-year winger Averi Nooren was the hero for the Gryphons, scoring the winner early in the second period, while Lowy added an empty-netter in the final minutes to put the game and the series out of reach.