The University of Alberta Pandas continued their season last weekend at Clarke Drake with two home games. After a sweep of the Mount Royal Cougars the weekend of October 23rd and 24th, the Pandas improved to to 4-4-0. Last weekend saw the Pandas hoping to further improve their record by hosting the second place Saskatchewan Huskies. The Pandas seem to be finding their footing as a team now and compensating for a poor start. Their last four games have yielded points - three wins and one shootout loss. Their record is now a 5-4-1 and places them fourth in the Canada West Conference.
Beyond what is recorded in the win-loss column, the Pandas also look more comfortable on the ice. At no point during the weekend were the Pandas dramatically outplayed by the Huskies, showing improvement from when the Pronghorns visited. The Pandas were stronger along the boards, moving the puck quicker and not getting tied up in costly battles along the boards. The Pandas play was also more consistent through the neutral zone, with more passes ending on the sticks of the intended recipient and quicker defensive recoveries when the Huskies came up with the puck.
Friday night was close contest with goals from Cayle Dillon and a returning Ashely Morin - who was out against the Pronghorns -- which was ultimately decided by a shootout. Unfortunately, the Pandas weren't victorious, but they were able to build on their strong Friday night performance and craft a dominant performance on Saturday.
The Huskies opened the scoring at 7:49 after having the better of the play for the opening ten minutes of the first period. The lone Saskatchewan goal came from Leah Bohlken and was assisted by Anakear and Flinton. This was Flinton's second point of the weekend, moving her into a tie for third in the CIS points race with 10.
From that point on, however, the game belonged to the Pandas. While the Pandas had been defensively frustrating for the Huskies for the first ten minutes or so, they didn't register a shot on goal until after the Huskies had scored. The Pandas were able to create sustained pressure consistently after the Huskies goal, but spent the early part of the first period trapped in their own zone. Despite the rough start, the Pandas were able to limit the Huskies to six shots in the first period (and only 16 shots throughout the game) and after killing a tripping penalty to A. Morin at 12:33 were able to score three goals before the end of the period. The first came from Lutz (from A. Morin and Baddock) at 16:59, the second from Ponzikoff (from Froehler and Cunningham) at 18:38, and the last from Helfrich (from D. Morin and A. Morin) at 19:21.
There would be no scoring in the second period, though it would feature some notable defensive play from Baddock, who made several good defensive plays and also had one impressive shot block in the first. The Huskies took two penalties in the second, one for cross-checking and one for interference, but much like the Pandas in the first period were able to survive being short a player unscathed. In fact, no team was able to score on the power play. The Pandas went 0/2 and the Huskies 0/1. Unfortunately for the Pandas, this highlights the problems their 24th place power play has had for a good part of the year. At only 7.3% effective, the Pandas power play seems to be an area of concern. Despite spending the majority of their power play time in the Huskies' zone, the Pandas were unable to unable to get a puck past Hendricks with the man advantage.
The third period saw the Panda's offense return to the score sheet with another goal from Poznikoff (from Froehler and Cunningham) at 4:24 and a final tally from Baddock (from Eady and Cunningham) at 9:25. Alex Poznikoff has had a sensational start to her rookie campaign with the Pandas. Her 8 points in 10 games puts her in ninth place in the CIS scoring race. Incredibly, those eight points are composed of seven goals and one assist. Poznikoff has definitely been a major offensive threat for the Pandas! Her strong rookie season remains one of the bright points to the Panda's season.
The team's offensive depth, -- Poznikoff and Froehler sit at 9th in the scoring race, Cunningham at 31st, and Baddock at 39th - has helped to relieve some of the pressure on second year forward Hannah Olenyk. Olenyk amassed an impressive 25 points in her rookie year, but hasn't quite found the same scoring touch so far during her sophomore campaign with only three assists and no goals. Tess Houston has likewise had a slow start with only one assist, but the offensive depth of the Pandas (ranked third in the country for goals scored) goes a long way in alleviating those concerns. Both players have looked strong for the Pandas over the course of the season; it just hasn't been reflected on the scoreboard. Houston looked especially good in the faceoff circle for the Pandas on Saturday night.
The continued chemistry between Ashley and Deanna Morin was once again on display Saturday night. Not only did they combine for the assists on Helfrich's goal, but they also managed to create several chances and trouble Hendricks throughout the evening. Neither player has any quit in the offensive zone, and their ability to find each other is a beautiful thing to watch.
Both Erinn Baddock (one goal and one assist) and Sash Lutz (one goal) looked strong throughout the game. Both forwards played defensively responsible games while still managing to frustrate the Huskies' defense. Lutz was particularly notable for the energy she brought to the game and for the ease with which she moved the play up the ice.
The defense of the Pandas is also worth mentioning. Both Eady and Dillion had excellent games again this weekend with strong positional play and an excellent sense of when to move up in the play. Natasha Steblin stayed out of the penalty box, increasing her effectiveness for the Pandas. With 20 PIMs already this season, Steblin sits second in the CIS PIM rankings. This hampers the Pandas as Steblin is a fifth year and one of the anchors of the Pandas defense. Curbing the time Steblin spends in the box will remain an important part of the Pandas defensive strategy.
The best players for the Pandas on Saturday night were Poznikoff (two goals and first star), Cunningham (three assists and second star), Froehler (two assists and third star), and Baddock (one goal and one assist). Also notable was Huskies' goalie Hendricks, who stopped 31 of 36 shots and had a much better night than the score line suggests.
The Pandas next games are a home and home with the University of Calgary Dinos on Novemeber 13thand 14th. The 13th will see the Pandas host the Dinos, and then they will switch places with the Bears the following night, travelling to Calgary to finish the series. The Dinos sit at the bottom of the table with only one win so far, but have a strong offensive threat in IyaGavrilova. The Pandas will be looking to improve their record and their position in the Canada West standings in a provincial contest.