The Canada West Conference started play on World Girls Hockey Weekend, October 7-9. The last two weekends have seen all eight Canada West teams in competition. Some early frontrunners have appeared, and some teams have fallen to the bottom of the standings.
The University of Manitoba Bisons sit atop the Canada West standings. The Bisons have an impressive 4-0-0-0 record to start the season. They have played two teams that have gotten off to rough starts in Lethbridge and Calgary. The Bisons have been able to spread their scoring touch around. Several Bisons feature in the top 20 scorers, with three players in the top ten scoring race, Lauryn Ken, Venla Hovi and Alanna Sharman. With the Bisons spreading their offense around, they will become a very difficult team to contend with. The Bisons have scored 12 goals while only allowing two. The early part of the season has allowed the Bisons to create an early cushion against possible dropped points when they play the teams which are higher up the standings table.
The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds currently find themselves in second place, having played an impressive University of Saskatchewan Huskies team and a struggling University of Calgary Dinos team. After raising the 2015-2016 Canada West Championship banner, the Thunderbirds opened their season against a more aggressive Huskies team. The Thunderbirds have a 3-1-0-0 record with their one loss coming to the Huskies. The Thunderbirds boast two of the top three scorers in the Canada West Conference in Nicole Saxvik and Cassandra Vilgrain. They also boost another highly placed scorer in Mairead Bast. Saxvik has eight points in four games, putting her on pace for more than 50 points this season. The Thunderbirds have scored three goals or more in all of the games they have played. If the Thunderbirds’ rookie goaltenders can perform, the team has an excellent chance of repeating as Canada West champions.
The University of Regina Cougars currently sit third in the Canada West Conference standings with a record of 2-1-1-0. Regina, much like Manitoba, has only played against teams much lower in the standings, such as the Mount Royal Cougars and the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, with tougher tests coming later in the season. Regina dealt with Mount Royal fairly easily on opening weekend, but struggled against the Pronghorns. Lethbridge was responsible for both the overtime victory and the regulation defeat the Cougars suffered. The Cougars’ highest scoring player, Jaycee Magwood, is highly placed in the Canada West scoring race. Much like the Bisons, the Cougars have several players in the top 20 scorers, which allows the Cougars offense more options when it comes to scoring and makes them a more difficult team to counter. However, the Cougars have also had trouble defensively and will need to strengthen their defense against teams with deeper offenses than Lethbridge.
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies have been a surprising team. They currently sit in fourth with a 1-1-2-0 record. The Huskies have gotten off to a strong start after undergoing a significant change during the offseason and welcoming several new players. The Huskies opened against the Canada West defending Champion Thunderbirds. The Huskies had a rough start, losing 4-0 to the Thunderbirds on opening night. However, they rebounded for an impressive 5-3 win the next night. The Huskies’ second weekend was even more impressive, as they edged the University of Alberta Pandas 2-1 in double overtime and then 2-1 in a shootout. The Huskies’ defensive mindset helps to counter the fact that they are the only team higher than sixth in the Canada West standings without a player in the top 10 scoring race. Kaitlin Willoughby is the Huskies top scorer, and she sits just outside the top ten. The Huskies will look to create some offense against a struggling Lethbridge team.
The University of Alberta Pandas find themselves in fifth place with a 1-0-1-2 record. The Pandas have been pushed to extra time three times in four games. The season opener against the Calgary Dinos was a thrilling affair in which the Pandas eliminated a two-goal deficit to win. The second half of the Calgary series was a far less equal affair. The Pandas won 6-0 in a dominant performance. Unfortunately, Deanna Morin received a body checking major that saw Dino Audrey Buston taken off the ice by paramedics. The Pandas next series was full of a different type of drama. The Pandas fell in double overtime and then a shootout to the Huskies. The Pandas have continued to spread their offense around and have three players – Amy Boucher, Kennedy Ganser and Alex Poznikoff – around the top ten of the Canada West scoring race. The Pandas defense has also been able to limit goals and push games into overtime. The Thunderbirds are the Pandas’ next opponents, and the series should be a good indicator of the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.
The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns are in sixth place in the Canada West after two series. They have a record of 1-2-0-1. Lethbridge had a rough opening weekend against the team currently leading the conference. They managed only one goal in two games against the Bisons, and surrendered eight. The Pronghorns rebounded against the University of Regina Cougars, where they won the first game and eventually lost in overtime the second game against the Cougars. The Pronghorns’ top scorer, Sarah Spence, sits just outside the top ten in the scoring race, but no other Pronghorns feature in the top 20. The Pronghorns are a team struggling to find a place for themselves in the competitive conference. Lethbridge will face another tough test in the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. The Pronghorns defense will be severely tested, and their offense will need to find another gear if they want to defeat the Huskies in regulation.
The University of Calgary Dinos are seventh in the standings with a record of 0-3-0-1. Their single point came in their opening game, where they lost in overtime to the Pandas. The Dinos have struggled to find their scoring touch with only five goals in four games played. They have allowed 16 goals in those games. Six of those goals came when they were shut out by the Pandas. Calgary has no players in the top 20 of the Canada West scoring race, which is unexpected as Sasha Vafina – who last year was second in the conference in scoring with 35 points – was expected to make a greater impact to start. The Dinos also got off to a poor start in the 2015-2016 campaign but managed to put together a very impressive second half of the season. If Vafina or Madison Turk can find their scoring touch, the Dinos might improve their win-loss record. Calgary’s next opponent is the Mount Royal Cougars, the only team below them in the standings. For the Dinos, it may very well be a chance to build some positive momentum and pick up some much needed points in the standings.
Finally, there are the Mount Royal Cougars. They have a record of 0-4-0-0. Their first two series – against Regina and Manitoba – were closer than might be expected. The Cougars lost by one goal once, were only shut out once and the greatest margin of victory was three goals. Mount Royal hasn’t been able to manage much offense against the teams they’ve played so far, scoring a single goal in three games and being shutout once. Gabrielle Seper has led the Cougars offense with two goals and an assist. The Cougars defense has started stronger than might be expected based on their position in the standings. If the Cougars can combine some defensive strength and a few goals, they may have more positive results in their future. The Cougars are hoping to get something positive started with their upcoming series against Calgary.
The Canada West Conference continues with another competitive weekend highlighted by the Pandas taking on the Thunderbirds. Both of these teams were favored in the preseason to be contenders, so this first meeting will be a good test of what women’s hockey fans can look forward to throughout the season. Some of the week three series started on Thursday evening, giving some teams and fans a head start of some fantastic women’s hockey.