The Varsity Blues women’s hockey team defeated the Queen’s University Gaels in a best-of-three quarter-final playoff series this past week. The Blues will advance to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) semi-final round beginning March 1, where they will face the second-seeded Nipissing Lakers.
The quarter-final round represented the first hurdle in the Blues’ quest to capture their first OUA championship since the 2002–2003 season. The women’s team finished third in the OUA division standings with a 17–7–0 record, setting them up to face the sixth-seeded Gaels (14–10–0), who defeated the Blues in each of their two contests this season.
Going into the playoffs, the Blues carried on from a successful second half of the season. A slow start in October led to a first half 6–5–0 record for the Blues despite solid goaltending from Yordanov and career-high numbers from Day. The team hit their stride in the second half of the season, stringing together a series of wins — including five in a row to start the new year — and improving to 13–6–0 by the end of January. The Blues concluded their regular season by winning each of their last four games. Their rise in the standings was due in part to the stellar goaltending tandem of Yordanov and Katey Teekasingh, who posted identical .942 save percentages at the close of the regular season, tying them for third in the league.
Additionally, the Blues’ special teams shined throughout the season. A home game on January 27 was particularly illustrative, when the Blues notched four powerplay goals and one shorthanded goal in a fiery, penalty-filled 5–1 rout of the visiting UOIT Ridgebacks.
Toronto ended the season as the best penalty-killing team in the league with a success rate of 94.3 per cent, and ranked second in powerplay scoring percentage — 18 per cent. Their success was due in large part to Day’s outstanding play; she has six powerplay goals and four shorthanded goals on the season. Third-year defencemen Julia Szulewska contributed three powerplay goals in her career-high 12 points this season.
The first game of the quarter-final series took place on February 22 at Varsity Arena. The Blues found themselves holding a commanding 3–0 lead midway through the game. Veteran forward and Toronto’s top scorer Taylor Day opened the scoring on a powerplay just into the fourth minute on the second shot of the game. Blues Defender Cristine Chao made it 2–0 taking a perfect pass in the high slot from forward Becki Bowering and sending a hard wrist shot past Gaels goaltender Stephanie Pascal. Day’s second marker of the game came shorthanded; following a deft steal off a Gaels defender, she skated in alone and deked out Pascal to make it 3–0.
The Gaels were down but not out. A series of Toronto penalties allowed the Gaels’ powerplay unit to capitalize twice, cutting the home team’s lead to one goal. At 16 minutes into the second period, Queen’s defender Micaela Smith chipped the puck under Blues goaltender Valencia Yordanov’s arm in a goalmouth scramble to score. Eight minutes later on a powerplay, Gaels captain Jessica Wakefield weaved around a Blues defender and slid the puck past Yordanov’s outstretched pad, making it 3–2.
Day nearly scored her third of the game after deflecting a pass on net and beating Pascal but not the goalpost, the puck was eventually cleared to safety by a Gaels defender.
The Gaels pulled their goaltender in the final minute of play, but their six attackers could not solve the strong Blues defense and solid goaltending of Yordanov. Toronto held on to the win with a razor-thin margin of 3–2, and they travelled to Memorial Centre in Kingston on February 25, hoping to sweep the series with a win and advance to the second round.
The Gaels responded with a solid effort on home ice, notching a 2–1 victory to even the series at a game apiece. After a scoreless and tight-checking first period, Queen’s forward Addi Halladay fired the puck past Yordanov to take the first lead of the game in the tenth minute of the second period. Toronto responded twenty seconds later, Day evaded the defence and beat Pascal to tie the game at one apiece.
A tripping penalty called on the Blues’ netminder led to the go-ahead goal, Gaels forward Katrina Manoukarakis batted in the puck in the seventeenth minute.
A penalty-filled third period yielded no goals for either side — Yordanov stood tall battling two Queen’s 5-on-3 opportunities — and the Gaels held on to tie the series at a game.
The third and deciding game of the quarter-final series was at home the next night, February 26. The atmosphere was tense prior to the game, as both teams knew that one of their seasons would end following the game.
The Blues struck first in the sixteenth minute of the first period. After hard forechecking, the Blues forced a turnover, and forward Kassie Roache flew in on a partial breakaway to chip the puck past the Gaels netminder. The Blues continued to apply pressure, racking up 17 shots in the first frame, but Pascal settled in and turned away a number of quality chances.
The Gaels fought back in the second period to tie the game. As a Queen’s powerplay was expiring, forward Megan Farrell drove to the net and slid the puck past Yordanov making it 1–1. The Gaels nearly made it 2–1 when forward Clare McKellar took a pass at the top of the crease, but Yordanov robbed her with a quick pad save to keep the score even.
Neither team could break the tie in what was a desperate, physical third period. Blues forward Kiyono Cox made an outstanding defensive play, breaking up a centring pass to a wide open Gael in front of the net. The score was still tied at one at the end of 60 minutes sending the game into overtime.
The Blues were the only team in the OUA who were undefeated in overtime in the regular season. On Sunday night, the Gaels were almost equal to the task, breaking up a number of Toronto rushes with excellent defensive stick-work.
Pascal made save after save as the Blues’ shots on goal surpassed 40. A string of penalties taken toward the end of the first overtime period put the Blues in a dire situation.
The Gaels had consecutive 5-on-3 opportunities when forwards Kristi Riseley, Meagan O’Brien, and Day were sent to the box on separate penalties. Toronto’s remarkable penalty-killing unit, led by the superb goaltending of Yordanov, faced their greatest test of the season and survived.
After 80 minutes of play the score remained deadlock at one goal apiece. In the second overtime period, the reinvigorated Blues held the edge in shots on goal but could not beat the Queen’s netminder.
As the second overtime period wound down and fatigue began to set in on both benches, it became evident that the next mistake by either team would decide the game.
After the Gaels failed to clear the puck out of their zone, the Blues dug in. They cycled the puck along the boards, tiring out the Gaels defenders. Blues forward Alessandra Bianchi took a centring pass from Katherine Gale and slid the puck through a defender’s legs to an open O’Brien at the top of the crease, who cut wide and slid the puck past a diving Pascal to win the game — and the series.