By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers are moving on to the second round for the first time in program history.
Taylor Gillis netted the game-winner 3:26 in overtime when she took a swipe at the loose puck in front before finally putting away the dagger, as the Panthers eliminated the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues with the 2-1 victory.
Soon after the puck hit the back of the net, the sophomore was bombarded by her teammates in celebration as the pile on top of her steadily grew.
"It was awesome," said Gillis, who scored both goals. "We were working so hard the entire game and I don't think we could've gone any further."
Ever since the league shifted their playoff structure to a more traditional series format in 2013-14, the Panthers have never reached the second round, until now.
"There's no words," said fifth-year captain Rachel Colle about moving on in the playoffs. "We haven't had the best luck in playoffs, but to finally get that one bounce…It's just the best feeling."
Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson has witnessed the first-round disappointment each and every time and he was just glad to see his veteran players celebrate a huge milestone for this team.
"I wanted this so badly for our fourth and fifth-year players," he said. "They've worked hard for so long to get to the next stage and we just needed it."
Moncton scored their only goal midway through the opening period to give them the 1-0 lead, which they took into the second. Defenceman Pascale Lebeau fired a shot from the blue line past Camille Scherger, who was screened in front and didn't see the puck bouncing toward the net.
But with plenty of time remaining, the Panthers remained calm, knowing they could pull out the gutsy win.
"We put that past us and I said 'just keep sticking to what we're doing. It will work,'" Donaldson said.
He was right.
His team tied it up with 4:15 remaining in the second. After winning the puck in the neutral zone, Kristen MacIntyre passed it along the boards to Gillis, who skated toward the slot past multiple defenders and sniped a shot off the crossbar and in.
The refs had a tight whistle the entire game and had called just three penalties until late in the third when they awarded a power play to Moncton with 2:32 remaining in regulation.
"When we got that penalty, it was like déjà vu from previous years," Colle said. "It was like 'oh, not again', but this year the mentality was we're killing this and we're going to overtime and winning it there."
The team blocked shots, dove for loose pucks and did everything in their power to extend the game.
And in the overtime period, UPEI put the game away. With seconds remaining on a power play, Kaylee Dufresne took a couple jabs off Colle's rebound before the puck slid across the crease to Gillis for the winner.
Scherger made 17 saves in the win while Audrey Berthiaume turned aside 31 shots for Moncton.
"It was a gritty game the whole time, but we came out on top and we definitely deserved to win," Gillis said.
The Panthers now turn their attention to the second-seeded St. FX X-Women for a best-of-three semifinal showdown.
"We're ready to go," Colle said. "We're going to go into X and give them everything we got."
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan