The University of Alberta Pandas 19th season opened last week in Manitoba, but this weekend saw them opening their season at Clarke Drake Arena during the celebration of World Girls Hockey Weekend. Unfortunately for the Pandas, the weekend saw them drop to 1 -2-1-0 on the season as they were swept by the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns.
Though the Pandas have had a rough start to the season, there are certainly positives to look forward to. A relatively balanced squad, they feature eight players in their first year of eligibility, and six in their fifth and final year. The Pandas are a relatively small and quick team, which relies on its speed to control the neutral zone. The Pandas look to be an exciting team to watch as the season continues.
This weekend, however, showed that the Pandas don’t have all of their pieces in position just yet. Their special teams were a weak point. The power play was 0/8 over the weekend, including over a minute on 5 on 3 power play time. The penalty kill was likewise troublesome; it went 5/8 over the course of the weekend. In a 3-2 defeat on Friday night, two of those goals were power play goals.
For the Pandas to have success going forward, two things are going to become increasingly important. First, the power play needs to become more effective. A lot of pucks went wide of the net and many passing sequences were broken up. Passing and shooting will need to become increasingly accurate if the Pandas wish to repeat as Canada West Champions this year. The second is a refrain that applies to many teams: the Pandas need to stay out of the penalty box. Late in Saturday’s game, the Pandas became visibly frustrated. Deanna Morin took two penalties for crosschecking, which did nothing to help the Pandas comeback attempts.
The first period of the Friday night game saw the Pandas firmly in control, with a 16 to 4 shot advantage. However, the second period saw the Pronghorns settle into what would be the style in which the remaining five periods of hockey would be played.
Lethbridge used active sticks to break up passing plays and size to control the play. Also, Lethbridge's rookie goalie, Alicia Anderson, played a terrific series. Despite the Pandas' best efforts, their passing game was frustrated, and they often found themselves hemmed into the neutral zone.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the home side though. Alex Poznikoff had an excellent series, culminating in the Pandas’ only goal on Saturday afternoon. Poznikoff was incredibly mobile, carrying the puck into the zone well and getting into battles for the puck in the corners. Poznikoff showed why the Pandas recruited her during the offseason. She was fast, smart, and there was no quit in her game at any point.
Also notable for a solid performance was Megan Eady. The defensewoman moved very well, cycling the puck, and skating well. She played a very solid positional game. Cayle Dillion was another defensewoman who has a very solid series. Like Eady, she moved the puck well and was consistently in the correct position to limit the effectiveness of the Pronghorn’s attack. The defense was, for the most part, able to force the Pronghorns attack to the outside, where the shot selection was less threatening.
Another player worth getting excited over is rookie goalie Danya Owen. Saturday afternoon’s game was Owen’s second start in a Pandas uniform. Her first start was a 4-0 shutout against the Manitoba Bison in the season opening series. Owen was able to stop a Pronghorns breakaway and was also responsible for several other high quality saves.
All three – Dillion, Owen, and Poznikoff-- are first years, providing a lot of hope for how the Panda’s season will progress as the team starts to come together. However, it remains undeniable that Pandas need to be able to counter the aggressive play where other teams uses active sticks and smart positional play to break up rushes and force the play back out of the offensive zone. The Pandas also need to be careful about entering into endless battles for the puck along the boards. The Pronghorns tied the puck up along the boards, using their size advantage, and this forced the Pandas to waste valuable time (usually with the man advantage) trying to dig the puck out of the corner.
If the Pandas are able to build on the positives from this last series, including a never say die attitude, good cycling of the puck, and excellent skating, they have the building blocks they need to be successful in their coming games. Combined with the proven leadership behind the bench in Howie Draper, the Pandas should be able to bounce back from a less than fantastic start to this season.
The Pandas will be at home, hosting the Regina Cougars, this coming weekend. Puck drop will be at 7pm on Friday and 2pm on Saturday as the Pandas look to improve their season record. The Pandas will also be at home on October 24th at 6 pm playing host to the Mount Royal Cougars. Their final October games will be October 30rd at 7pm and October 31st at 6pm when they host the Saskatchewan Huskies.