By: Monty Mosher
Ask both AUS coaches about the keys to success at the U Sports women's hockey championship and the answer comes back swift and certain.
St. Francis Xavier's Ben Berthiaume and Chris Larade of Saint Mary's will rely on goalies Carley Molnar and Rebecca Clark, respectively.
Clark backed the Huskies, owners of the last three AUS titles, to a 20-3-1 regular-season. She had a 1.15 goals-against average on her way to a 14-4 win-loss mark.
Molnar went 13-3 with a 1.45 goal-against average. The X-Women went 20-2-2 to win the AUS pennant by a point.
In the league final, the Huskies eked out a 2-1 series victory. Clark made 30 saves for the shutout in the deciding game, a 1-0 Saint Mary's win, with Molnar stopping 27 of 28 at the opposite end.
The Huskies will be the No. 2 seed for the national tournament beginning Thursday in London, Ont. The X-Women are seeded fifth.
"I think our team has stepped it up since Christmas break and we are hoping to be at our peak this week," said Larade.
"Competition will be tough as there is great balance from 1-8, so we look forward to seeing how we stack up."
The Huskies finished the regular season with an 11-game winning streak and went 4-1 in the playoffs.
As for Clark's role, it might go without saying.
"I think goaltending will be key for sure, and for the rest of the girls it will be about staying in the moment and not thinking about anything but the next play."
Saint Mary's is chasing a first Canadian title. They were third-best offence and second-best defence in the nation during the regular season.
Veteran Breanna Lanceleve had a team-best 28 points that included 10 goals. Siobhan Birch and Nicole Branche also had 10 goals each.
AUS most valuable Daley Oddy powered the No. 1 offence in the land at St. F.X. She had 31 points on 16 goals and 15 assists to lead all of U Sports. Sarah Bujold, last year's U Sports player of the year, wasn't far behind with 13 goals and 14 assists.
But if the X-Women are going to win their first national title, what happens between the pipes will likely tell the tale.
"As a team we need to be very responsible in our end, at the national level every mistake is magnified," said Berthiaume.
"We need to use our speed to our advantage, chipping pucks past the other team's defence and working to retrieve the puck. Work the puck on the cycle and get pucks back to our big shooters at the point with traffic. Our goaltending has been very good and at this tournament you need to have good goaltending."
No. 7 Saskatchewan Huskies meets Saint Mary's to start the quarter-finals on Thursday afternoon. The Montreal Carabins, the 2016 champs, play the host Western Mustangs, winners in 2015, in the night game.
No. 8 Queen's Golden Gaels take on the top-ranked Manitoba Bisons on Friday afternoon with St. F.X. against No. 4 Concordia Stingers in the night game.
The two semifinals are Saturday with the games for bronze and gold on Sunday. There is also a consolation final on the last day.
There will be a new champion this year. The Alberta Pandas didn't make it back to defend their 2017 title