(Photo: Karyn Stepien / Grace Chung)
As the old saying goes, "goaltending wins championships," so it should come as no surprise that the starting goalies of the four teams in the OUA women's hockey semifinals also have the four lowest goals against averages in the playoffs.
Amanda Smith of the defending champion Laurier Golden Hawks leads the way with a 0.76 goals against average (GAA) and .974 save percentage (SV%) as her team finds itself in the rare situation of being the underdog against the CIS No. 3-ranked Western Mustangs. In goal for Western is Kelly Campbell, who has a 1.50 playoff GAA after leading the conference with a .954 SV% in the regular season.
It will be an all-top 10 matchup when the No. 5 Guelph Gryphons and No. 10 Toronto Varsity Blues meet in the other semifinal matchup. In goal for Guelph is Stephanie Nehring, who led the conference in the regular season with a 1.18 GAA and has somehow managed to improve on that in the playoffs, currently ranking second allowing 0.86 goals per game. Nicole Kesteris will get the call in goal for the Varsity Blues; she currently ranks third in the playoffs with a 1.45 GAA and .952 SV%.
(1) Western Mustangs vs. (6) Laurier Golden Hawks
Having won nine of the previous 11 OUA championships, Laurier came into the playoffs as the underdogs with a first-round matchup against the Top 10-ranked Queen's Gaels and showed they aren't quite ready for a changing of the guard atop the conference, sweeping the Gaels in the best-of-3 series.
They now meet the Western Mustangs who are fresh off a season in which they set a new team record in wins, going 20-1-3; swept their first-round meeting with the Nipissing Lakers; and are determined to win the first OUA title in their program's history.
The Windsor Lancers were the only team to defeat Western in regulation time, but the Golden Hawks were one of only four teams to beat the Mustangs at all, winning 2-1 in a shootout on Oct. 12 in Western's second game of the season. The Mustangs defeated Laurier 3-2 a few weeks later on Nov. 1 and the teams have not met since.
Goals will be at a premium this series, so both teams will need their offensive weapons to rise to the occasion. Forward Kendra Broad led the Mustangs in regular season scoring and ranked second in the conference with 15 goals and 30 points, but had just one assist in two games against Nipissing. Instead it was forward Cassidy Gosling and defenceman Katelyn Gosling who led the way for Western, each recording three points against Nipissing, which ties them for the conference lead in playoff points.
Forward Jessie Hurrell finished fifth in OUA and led the Golden Hawks in points during the regular season with 24, and is tied for the team lead in the playoffs with two. The Golden Hawks required triple overtime to win Game 1 against Queen's when forward Tammy Freiburger, who tied for second on Laurier with 21 regular season points, came to the rescue by scoring the lone goal of the game in the 1-0 win.
The series gets underway Wednesday, Feb. 25 with Game 1 of the best-of-3 series taking place in London at 7 p.m.
(2) Guelph Gryphons vs. (4) Toronto Varsity Blues
The Gryphons and Varsity Blues met twice during the regular season, and given that both games were decided shootouts – which aren't used to break ties in the OUA playoffs – another close series is expected.
The teams split those shootout games, each picking up a win, and come into the semifinals after sweeping their respective first round series.
The Gryphons needed two overtime games to knock off the feisty Ryerson Rams in the first round, while Toronto won two-one goal games – including one in overtime – against the fifth-seed Windsor Lancers.
Forward Jessica Pinkerton led the Gryphons in scoring during the regular season and had three points in the first round, including a goal and an assist in the 2-1 series-clinching overtime win. Forward Christine Grant, the Gryphons third-leading scorer in the regular season, scored the overtime winner against the Rams in Game 2. Forward Averi Nooren also had a goal and assist in the series, including a game-tying powerplay goal late in the third period of Game 1 which allowed Guelph to stay alive for the overtime win.
Toronto only had one player reach the 20-point mark during the regular season, that was Kristi Riseley who had 11 goals and nine assists, and relies on a balanced scoring attack. In Toronto's first-round series sweep of Windsor, each of Toronto's five goals was scored by a different player, including three coming from its defencemen. Veteran forward Amanda Ricker led the team with three points in the series, all coming on assists, including one on Taylor Day's series-clinching, highlight-reel overtime goal in Game 2 against Windsor.
The best-of-3 series begins with Game 1 on Wednesday, Feb. 25 @ 7:30 p.m. in Guelph.
A full schedule of the OUA women's hockey semifinals is available here.
The two semifinals winners will meet in a winner-take-all championship game hosted by the highest remaining seed.
If you can't catch the games in person, be sure to watch all the action live on OUA.tv!