By Thomas Becker
In many ways, last season's success came as a surprise for the UPEI Panthers women's hockey team. Several rookies came in and made an unexpected impact and the team finished fourth with an impressive 14-9-1 record.
Despite being swept by the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus in the first round of the playoffs, the season was a huge positive for a program filled with young talent.
Fast forward several months and suddenly there are expectations and unfinished business yet to accomplish in an unforgiving battle for the AUS crown.
Head coach Bruce Donaldson felt the pride that comes with winning a championship once before in 2011-12, and he's hoping to share that experience again with a new generation of Panther standouts.
"I remember it clearly and it's a great feeling," the bench boss said. "We want to bring another championship to UPEI and I believe it's achievable."
With a good complement of new and returning players, including 16 first and second-year players, Donaldson has the luxury of mixing and matching his lineup in an attempt to build a championship contender.
The sophomore trio of Sydnee Baker (reigning AUS Rookie of the Year), Maria Clinton and Faith Steeves combined to score 23 of the team's 53 goals in their rookie seasons and will be counted on again to put up strong numbers.
"For our sophomores, this is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their on-ice productivity and leadership qualities."
"They're going to be key for us," Donaldson said. "We're going to need those three girls producing and if they can match or better what they did, then we should have another successful year."
After scoring just 53 goals in 2016-17 – good for fifth in the seven-team conference – Donaldson has used the pre-season to work tirelessly on an offence that, if all goes as planned, has the potential to take them further into the playoffs.
"We spent a lot of time in the pre-season in terms of our offence," he said. "We're not a team that has a lot of finesse when it comes to scoring, so we really need to work on getting pucks in front of the goalie and generate scoring opportunities from that."
Rookie forward Leah Byrne comes in as another capable scorer after earning the Nova Scotia female midget AAA scoring title. As a member of the MacIntyre Chevy Panthers, Byrne gathered 21 points in 18 games. Standing at five-foot-three, she'll have to adjust to the speed and physicality of the AUS. But once she does, Donaldson believes she'll factor prominently in the Panthers lineup.
The defence, meanwhile, is in the reliable hands of newly named captain, Emma Martin. The two-time all-star is one of the league's best skaters and has quietly become the Panthers heart and soul.
"We look to her to play as an all-star." Donaldson said. "But Emma's biggest skillset is her willingness and caring for her teammates and they know it."
Martin, along with veteran Madison Clarke will be key in guiding a young defence that got even younger with the additions of rookies Ally Clements and Sophie Vandale, who already gained their coach's trust and earned a spot in the opening day lineup. They'll look to match the same intensity that led them to the second fewest goals against (53) a year ago.
The Panthers goaltending situation will look a bit different this year. After five years of No. 39 between the pipes, Megan Sullivan now steps into the role left behind by perennial all-star Marie-Soleil Deschenes. While those are certainly big skates to fill, Sullivan has performed admirably in her opportunities and is more than capable. In seven games last season, the fourth-year goaltender was 4-3 with a 2.93 goals against average and .905 save percentage. Rookie Camille Scherger will serve as the team's backup when her number's called upon.
With newfound confidence and experience, these Panthers won't catch anyone by surprise this year. And if they intend on dethroning the back-to-back champion Saint Mary's Huskies, they'll have to continue taking strides in their development and fully embrace the roles given to them.
"We need everyone to embrace what we are attempting to do and continue to work as a united front in order to have success," Donaldson said. "We need everyone to do their job and believe in each other throughout the process."