By Ryan Stelter
In early November of this season, the Alberta Pandas were sitting at a pedestrian 4-3-3 record. With a young squad, it looked like it was going to be a bit of rebuilding year for the Pandas. That was not to be, however. The Pandas went on to win 19 of their last 20 regular season games and go on to win the national championship.
“We started off a little sketchy,” second year forward Alex Poznikoff said. “Eventually we just said ‘Let’s set a goal’ and take it step-by-step and that’s what worked for the team.”
That goal was to get out of that hole, and win the last six games at the end of the fall semester. The Pandas just that, outscoring their opponents 17-5 in those final six contests.
“I was hesitant, but you have to believe in your group if that’s what they want to do and you have to support them,” head coach Howie Draper said. “So we did that as a coaching staff, and they made it happen.”
The incredible run Alberta went on to end the season landed them in second place in Canada West with a 21-4-3- record. That guaranteed them a berth in the conference semifinals with a first round bye, where they dispatched the Manitoba Bisons in two games to set up a duel with the top-ranked UBC Thunderbirds in the Canada West final.
Alberta took Game 1 by a score of 2-0, with fifth year goaltender Lindsey Post posting a 20-save shutout. The Pandas fell in the next two games, ceding the Canada West Championship to UBC.
“As a fifth-year I was pretty upset about it,” Post said. “I think a lot of the girls didn’t realize how much winning Canada West means. We had a huge team meeting and a lot of the (veterans) explained the feeling and how much it stung.”
Coach Draper had said his team was able to regroup and use that adversity to their advantage at the national tournament in Napanee, Ont.
“I think that if things were really easy for us throughout the course of that (series), we may not have been as resilient at nationals,” he said.
The Pandas were seeded sixth heading into U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship and most had pegged them to not get as far as they did.
“We knew we had it in us,” said Poznikoff, the Pandas’ regular season point leader. “Everyone was confident in the team but we felt that we were a bit of the underdogs at nationals.”
In their quarterfinal matchup, the Pandas upset the third-ranked Saint Mary’s Huskies 2-1, to move on to the semifinals against the Concordia Stingers. Down 2-1 after the first period, the Pandas scored five unanswered to to win 6-2. Then in the gold medal game, Alberta captured the Golden Path Trophy with a 2-1 victory in double overtime against the McGill Martlets, with Taylor Kezama giving the program their eighth national title.
Post, a native of Chelea, Que., about two hours north of where the national tournament was held, made 40 saves in her final game as a Panda.
For Alberta, the team were as composed as they could be in the intermissions between overtime periods. Poznikoff said it was reassuring to see her teammates be so calm.
“There is something special about this team because when I looked around the room everyone was relaxed,” she said. “We were just chatting about things we could change; everybody was just relaxed which was surprising for a moment like that.”
For Poznikoff, winning the national title in her second year was a special experience, capping off a year that included representing Canada at the Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“I just remember seeing the puck cross the line and started to panic because I got to find somebody on the ice to hug,” she said. “I can’t really complain about this season – I had a great team.”
“There really are no words,” Post said about the feeling of winning the national title. “I never thought at the beginning that this is how my career would end, but there is no better way it could’ve.”
With a large portion of the Pandas roster remaining intact for next season, there is reason to believe they could make a return appearance to the national tournament in London, Ont., in 2018.
“It’s tough in (Canada West),” Draper said. “Getting to nationals is very, very difficult. It’s going to be a long road (back) starting in September.”