By: Dwayne Tingley
Saint Mary's Huskies veteran Alexa McMillan understands growing pains in the AUS women's hockey conference.
The Huskies finished in third place last year, but they've reached the mid-point of this season by surging to top spot and McMillan believes they're going to keep getting better.
"We had a good team (last year), but we were young, and we needed a little more experience," said the 20-year-old Edmonton native.
"We like our mix this year because we've got some older players and a lot of good rookies," she continued. "We're working well together and we're learning from each other. Our returning players benefited from last year's experience."
The Huskies, who have won three AUS titles in the last four years, lead the standings with a 16-2-0 record for 32 points. The UPEI Panthers, who will host the U SPORTS national championship in mid-March in Charlottetown, are in second place with a 14-3-1 record for 29 points.
"Overall," said Huskies head coach Chris Larade, "we are happy with our performance, but nowhere near satisfied in terms of where we want our game to be as a group.
"We have a few periods at times, where we just were not respecting the game and playing the right way, but overall, our consistency was pretty good. We still have a ton of work to do and things to clean up."
McMillan, a third-year business and psychology major, said the Huskies are committed to making the improvements necessary to contend for a conference title and compete for a national crown.
"We have a fast team and we have a very hard-working team," said explained. "When we use our speed and our work ethic, we combine it with taking care of all the little details on the ice. That's when we are at our best and we're hard to beat."
The StFX X-Women are in third place at the break with a 12-5-1 record for 25 points. They are followed by the UNB Reds (11-7-0, 22 points), defending champion St. Thomas Tommies (9-8-1, 19 points), Dalhousie Tigers (5-13-0, 10 points), Moncton Aigles Bleues (3-14-1, seven points) and Mount Allison Mounties (2-15-1, five points).
"I think the league as a whole has been strong and every team can win on any given night," Larade said. "With UPEI, you can see them using their experience as nationals hosts last year, to bring their program to a new level. Bruce (Donaldson) and his staff have done a great job.
"That raises everybody's game and the AUS product has gotten better every year because different programs keep raising the bar," he continued. "The new year always brings new energy and surprises so I'm sure it will be an exciting race to the playoffs to see where all the chips fall."
Donaldson agreed, noting hard work will make the difference during the second half and down the stretch because there is so much parity among all the teams in the conference.
"Teams really start to figure each other out (in the second half), so execution (is key), especially on special teams," said the Panthers head coach.
"Any team can win on any given day, so you have to you have to be ready to play each and every day."