The AWIHL Finals are on this year and the annual quest for the Joan McKeown Trophy is rapidly coming to an end as the teams converge on Melbourne for what should be a battle for the ages.
Truth be told, if I had written this article 2 games ago this Finals preview would look monumentally different. The final two series of the AWIHL season gave us everything we could have asked for and more. Finals this year is truly anyone’s game and, with the quest for the championship being an elimination bracket, all that stands between any team and The Cup are two good games.
If the matchups, 1v4 and 2v3, seem familiar to you that’s because its the same bracket as last year. However, while the teams are the same do not expect any team to have an easy road after the league found a new sense of parity over the course of the season.
Sydney Sirens (1) vs Adelaide Rush (4)
This season proved to be a big one for both these teams, with the Sirens managing to extend last season’s golden run a further 10 games before it ended at the 22 game mark at the hands of the Melbourne Ice. Adelaide, coming back after a rough 2016-17 in which they only scored 10 goals in 12 games, have proved that they are a team to be reckoned with. The Sirens, yet again, have two players in the top 5 in scoring with both Sharna Godfrey (11-10-21) and Stephenie Cochrane (15-4-19) while the Rush’s Natalie Ayris (11-7-18) also made it into the top 5, continuing her career season last year, more than doubling her point total. For Ayris much of her success has come by virtue of having some fantastic linemates, with her and Import Ashley Pelky developing rapid chemistry.
This season, Adelaide learnt to win, learnt to push back. It’s something that was evident even in their season opener against Sydney and it was something that became particularly evident when they defeated the Sirens in their second-to-last game of the season to become only the second team to come out with a win against the Sirens since February 2016, making them a fantastic first round matchup for the defending Champions.
On the flip side, this is a Sydney team that seems to have a giant fissure running through it. The cracks have been showing up all season, with issues in the neutral zone and a league-high number of penalties with a -12 penalty differential. In comparison to the Rush who have drawn 25 more penalties than they have given up, the Sirens’ time on the PK has really put the pressure on goaltender Ella Licari. And while she has definitely stood tall for them in net with the 3rd highest save percentage in the league with the highest number of game played, the Sirens’ reliance on her could prove to be costly come finals.
For Adelaide the trick is just to go all in. Get on the Power Play. Get Natalie Ayris and Ashley Pelky to the net and then sit back and watch. Much the same as last year, they really have nothing to lose, so why not go out there, shoot holes in the Sirens’ defence and hope for the best. The Sirens have lost 2 of their last 4. They are not the infallible monster that we saw at this same time last year. They’re fantastic, but they are also, for the first time in a while, something flawed and something beatable. Adelaide have done it once and it’s just one game. All it takes is one lucky goal and you’re playing for the Joan McKowen cup.
Melbourne Ice (1) vs Brisbane Goannas (4)
This season has been an eventful one for both teams, with Melbourne retooling their already strong roster after last year’s disappointing Semi-Final result in which Brisbane caused what was perhaps the upset of the season, and Brisbane, who started their rebuild after losing several key players over the offseason. This season also hasn’t been without its milestone for both teams, with Melbourne snapping the Sirens’ monumental win streak in February as well as Jessica Pinkerton (14-12-26) taking out the league scoring title in a decisive fashion. Imogen Perry for Brisbane leads all goaltenders in save percentage with a 0.943 record, admittedly with a ‘lighter’ game load than most once you account for her National Team and Australian Junior League absences.
This season saw a return to the Melbourne of old with their only losses in the first half of the season coming at the hand of Sydney before they finally played the metaphorical demon in the third game of their season series. It had been a while since anyone had beaten Sydney, dating back to the 2016 Grand Final in which Melbourne lost in a shootout. And heading into the Finals this year, it is still most likely that whoever wants the cup is going to have to go through the defending champions to do it. Brisbane also managed to collect a morale-boosting win in the dying seconds of the season taking down Melbourne in their second-to-last game of the season to prove that this Semi-Final really is anyone’s to take.
For Melbourne, it’s all about the firepower; their defence is some of the best in the league and always has been with their goaltenders facing the second lowest number of shots in the entire league. But it is their offensive firepower that strikes fear into opposing teams with players like Pinkerton along with last year’s leader in league scoring Christina Julien (11-6-17) and veterans like Kristelle Van Der Wolf (5-14-19) proving time and time again just how effective they can be given the time and space.
The Goannas on the other side have struggled with their goalies facing over 400 shots during the course of the season. Their wins have all come thanks to the glove of Perry who, at only 17 years old, is proving to be the backbone of this young team. With her goals saved above average sitting at 7.47 a feat for the young goaltender who will look to back up her winning performance against the ice in February, with another this weekend.
While in so many ways this seems like Melbourne’s game to lose. This is still, at its core, the team that knocked them out of trophy contention for the first time in 8 years and then took the undefeated Sirens to a shootout a year ago. They’re a team that has tasted what it feels like to come that close and have it all slip through your fingers at the very last moment. And while Melbourne is certainly shooting for the double after their men’s team counterpart secured The Goodall Cup back in September, the recent loss to Brisbane and last year’s Semi-Final has to be weighing heavily in the backs of their minds.
How to Watch
The AWIHL has gone full digital this year, streaming each and every game of the season from their YouTube channel. Now if you live in North America, they are early, but honestly who amongst us has managed to fix their sleep schedule from the Olympics yet and if you have what are your secrets because mine is still nothing short of horrible.
Semi Finals / Saturday 17th March
Sydney vs Adelaide
3pm AEDT/12am EDT
Melbourne vs Brisbane
5:30pm AEDT/2:30am EDT
Finals / Sunday 18th March
2:30pm AEDT / 11:30pm EST (Saturday 17th)
5pm AEDT / 2am EDT
And if you missed some games this season and want to catch up, they’re all archived at youtube.com/awihlstreaming. There is even a top shelf podcast reference hidden in the commentary of one of the games, so let me know if you find it!