The Canada West Conference of U Sports opens this weekend and all eight teams will all be in action. Each team has excellent players, but as in all leagues, there are a certain few you should keep a close eye on:
Alicia Anderson, University of Lethbridge
Anderson played on the conference’s worst team last year, which managed only four wins amid 24 loses; as a result, the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns goaltender had the worst goals against average of goaltenders who played 540 minutes or more. Despite her 3.14 goals against average, Anderson still had a 0.919 save percentage, made 762 saves, and was in net for all four of the Pronghorns’ wins.
Anderson’s 2016-17 season may have lacked wins or postseason play, but her positive impact on her team was noticeable when watching Lethbridge play. Anderson provided her team opportunities to win games against Calgary, Mount Royal, and Regina through the season and will be crucial to any success the Pronghorns have in the upcoming year.
The Pronghorns will still be counting on Anderson’s athleticism and calm demeanor to give them an opportunity in each of her starts.
Mairead Bast, University of British Columbia
Bast is one of the top offensive defenders in the Canada West conference. She’s only entering her second year with the the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, but her rookie season saw her record 15 points in only 16 games with one more assist during the Canada West playoffs. Interestingly enough, all five of Bast’s goals came on the power play. This season it will be a test of Bast’s skill to see if she can score without the man advantage.
The Thunderbirds’ defense lost three players at the end of last season, which means Bast will be a major piece of the reworked corp along with Alexa Ranahan and Celine Tardif. How Bast manages the increased responsibility and ice time, as the Thunderbirds will need more than 16 games from her this year, will be very interesting sidebars as the Thunderbirds start the season. Bast’s ability to create offense will be tested as the Thunderbirds attempt to replace Murray’s point production and offensive touch.
Cassandra Vilgrain, University of British Columbia
Joining Mairead Bast on the Thunderbirds is Cassandra Vilgrain. One of the top scorers in Canada West last year, Vilgrain was an important part of a team which won 23 of 28 regular-season games. She had 27 points in 24 games during the regular season and added four more points in six games during the Canada West playoffs. She finished with 32 points, including a goal in the U Sports National Championship.
Vilgrain joined the Thunderbirds after spending three years in the NCAA with the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. Entering her last season of eligibility, Vilgrain’s movement and “quick release” make her a considerable threat. She also has excellent hockey sense and a fast and dynamic game. Vilgrain will be expected to both anchor the Thunderbirds’ offense and provide leadership to the incoming rookie class.
The Thunderbirds have the added pressure of two Canada West championships but no U Sports national titles. Trying to take their game to the next level will be an extra responsibility for Vilgrain in her final season.
Lauryn Keen, University of Manitoba
The only player to score more points than Vilgrain was the University of Manitoba Bisons’ Lauryn Keen. Keen had 34 points in 28 games for the Bisons, earning top scorer honors in Canada West. Her 34 points during the regular season ranked her fifth in all U Sports conferences.
One of the notable elements of Keen’s game is that the majority of her points are assists. Keen’s ability to control play and create openings for her linemates makes her something special. Her creative touch will help anchor the Bisons’ offense by providing both goals and opportunities for others.
Combined with Venla Hovi and Alanna Sharman, Keen will look to bring the Bisons their first national title this season. The Bisons have made th Canada West Finals only once in the past three seasons, but they’ve gotten off to a convincing start, notching seven wins and one overtime loss in the preseason.
Alex Poznikoff, University of Alberta
The Pandas are currently a team that tries to embody a philosophy of scoring by committee. However, the leader of that committee last season was Poznikoff, who recorded 25 points in 24 games and won a silver medal at the 2017 Winter Universiade.
Poznikoff’s size is countered by her strength on the puck and forecheck. Beyond keeping a play alive, Poznikoff boasts impressive chemistry with linemates Autumn MacDougall and Kennedy Ganser. Between the three players, they tallied an incredible 63 points.
Poznikoff’s success has built over her first two years with the Pandas. As a rookie she had 16 points in 28 games, and her sophomore season saw that total jump nine points in four fewer games. Many will be watching to see if Poznikoff’s growth continues at the same pace and if she challenges for the scoring title in Canada West this season.
The Pandas enter the 2017-2018 season as both a young team and reigning National Champions. Much observation will center around how they cope with attempting to repeat their success. While the pressure of being defending champions will affect the entire Pandas team, a lot of the focus will be on Poznikoff. It’s up to her to shine or wilt in the spotlight.
All eight Canada West teams start their journey towards crowning a 2017-18 champion on October 6.