By Rob Mahon
A nail-biter of a series clincher saw the Manitoba Bison Women's hockey team leave the ice in jubilation at Wayne Fleming Arena on Sunday, February 22.
It was a fitting end to a long, hard-fought and nasty series between two closely matched teams, but in the end there could be only one team to emerge victorious.
Courtlyn Oswald won the game and the series at 6:06 of the first overtime with her first of the playoffs, and Alanna Sharman and Maggie Litchfield-Medd also tallied for Manitoba. Emma Waldenberger and Bailey Braden replied for Regina, who has been eliminated from the postseason despite a herculean effort against a favored Bison squad.
Goaltender Rachel Dyck was strong all game long for Manitoba, making several key saves on two on one rushes and one fantastic save on a breakaway from Regina's leading scorer Kylie Gavelin. At the other end, Toni Ross stood tall for the Cougars, despite furious pressure from Manitoba.
"When you're playing a team that doesn't quit like them, and when you have a young team like us trying to find its way, those things aren't going to come easy," said head coach Jon Rempel afterward. "Our group has handled adversity all year."
"I thought we played a great hockey game," he added. "I think we played three really good games against a good team, and I'm glad it was this kind of series because it sets up really well for next weekend. We don't have to get our levels up because they're already there."
Despite never leading in the series, Regina gave the hometown Bison all they could handle, and both game two and three went right down to the wire. Regina cut it as close as they possibly could this time, taking until there was barely over a second remaining to tie it. With Toni Ross pulled for the extra attacker, Braden tucked in a rebound past a sprawling Dyck to send the game to overtime.
"They played a smart game," Rempel said, crediting the Cougars' effort. "They never panicked. They stayed with it. I give them full marks for their efforts here."
Once overtime began, however, it was clear Manitoba wouldn't be denied.
"They were angry," Rempel said of his team after the goal. "I was angry. Not at them, but at the situation. We thought we deserved a better fate. I haven't gotten angry very much this year, and I think in overtime they were just like, 'Okay, let's go out and play.'"
And play they did. Manitoba controlled the play in overtime, and got the fate their effort earned them when Lauryn Keen drove the net and left the puck there for Oswald, who chipped it over Ross and in.
The Bison will have less than a week to celebrate before getting right back into the thick of things against a strong UBC squad. The best of three Canada West semifinal series begins next weekend in Vancouver.