The X’s ended up aligning almost perfectly for the St. Francis Xavier University X-Women against the Tommies in the Atlantic University Sport women’s hockey semifinals.
StFX advanced to the AUS final and clinched a berth in the U Sports national tournament with a 5-3 victory over St. Thomas University on Tuesday night before 579 fans at Grant-Harvey Centre.
The win in the third and final game of the best-of-three series ruined the Tommies’ hopes for a trip to nationals, as well as the conference final in the meantime. If STU had won, they would have played for an AUS banner and Canadian championship for the second straight year.
“It was tough,” Tommies captain Kelty Apperson said, fighting back tears but remaining well-spoken after losing the final game of her storied AUS career.
“We had a big crowd to cheer us on tonight, but we just couldn’t get it done, so it’s tough to lose like that, as well.”
The Tommies looked to repeat and even build on the magical run they had last season, when they finished third in the conference. Last year, they swept the Dalhousie University Tigers and Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues before falling to the Saint Mary’s University Huskies in the AUS final and finishing fifth at nationals.
But a strong second half of the regular season and dominant two games for the X-Women, along with hot goaltending from netminder Ariana Orasanin, in this year’s semis halted STU’s quest for another shot at AUS and national supremacy.
After going 5-5 in its last 10 games, STU finished second in the conference with a 17-4-3 record and clinched a first-round bye prior to facing StFX.
The X-Women came in third at 16-8 after winning eight of their last 10, then swept the Tigers before facing the Tommies.
“It feels great,” StFX forward Kara Power said after Tuesday’s win.
“[The Tommies] are a tough team over there, and we just brought our best. It happened to work out for us.”
To an extent, the Tommies’ inconsistency played a role in the upset for the X-Women. In Game 1 Friday night – which StFX won 6-2 – as well as Game 3, STU fell victim to strong first periods for the X-Women.
The Tommies forced the tiebreaker contest with a hard-fought 2-0 win in Game 2 Sunday night in Antigonish.
“Even when [StFX] did score, the bench was still loud and the crowd was rowdy,” said Apperson. “Sometimes the bounces just don’t go your way, which is tough.”
But in the first and third games, STU tried to make a late push throughout the last 40 minutes, but playing from behind caught up to them both nights.
“[StFX] was the better team today,” said Peter Murphy, the Tommies’ soft-spoken head coach, following Tuesday’s defeat.
“It’s not that our girls didn’t play hard. We did have a bit of jump in the second and some energy in the third.”
The X-Women struck first at 6:03 in the opening frame, when forward Daley Oddy passed the puck from inside the Tommies’ blueline to Kara Power, whose shot from just outside the crease beat STU goalie Abby Clarke.
The first StFX goal came on a power play while Tommies forward Becky Conner was in the box for bodychecking.
STU answered 34 seconds later, when forward Lauren Henman took a pass from Emily Oleksuk off a 3-on-1 rush and slid it past Orasanin.
StFX went back up by a goal 14 seconds after that, when a shot from Jenna MacDonald got over Clarke’s shoulder.
MacDonald then put the X-Women up 3-1 at 14:35. She left the corner on a partial wraparound just as StFX killed Heather Tillsley’s tripping penalty and tucked a shot past Clarke.
“It’s easy to score when you have the whole team behind you,” MacDonald said post-game. “It was a hard-fought battle for everyone, including the Tommies.
“It was just two hard teams going at it.”
Oleksuk brought the Tommies back within one on a power play at 16:10. She tipped a point shot from rearguard Eliza Snider under the crossbar and past Orasanin.
Almost three minutes into the second period, Orasanin successfully pokechecked STU forward Myf Thomson before Tillsley made a long pass to Kara Power, who shot and beat Clarke high on her blocker side to make it 4-2 for StFX.
“They got up on us when we should have been up on them,” said Apperson. “When we scored, they came right back, so it’s hard to build off that and bounce back, but we played with lots of heart and fought until the last buzzer.”
Twelve minutes later, Emily Power’s shot was deflected past Clarke by a STU defender to put StFX up by three.
“When we go down three like that, it’s going to be tough [to come back],” said Murphy.
Henman netted her second of the game almost 17 minutes into the third. She buried a point shot from defender Jessie McCann that was touched by Oleksuk en route to Henman, but that’s as close as the Tommies would come.
The Tommies were held to three shots in the first compared to eight for the X-Women. STU outshot StFX 9-8 in the second period before the X-Women recorded nine shots over the Tommies’ seven in the third.
Orasanin made 17 saves on 19 Tommies shots in the winning effort. Clarke took the loss despite making 20 saves.
For Apperson, Thomson and Snider, Tuesday’s game was their last in a green, gold and white Tommies uniform.
Apperson said she has heard from former STU players what they miss most is the team camaraderie and culture.
“This building [Grant-Harvey Centre] was built when I first came here, so not being able to come in every day to that will be hard.”
“Family is everything on our team,” the coach said upon wrapping up his 15th season behind the Tommies’ bench.
“They understand this is the end of the family. At least three players will not be back next year … I mean, they’ll stay in touch with one another, but they won’t be part of this team.
“The three who are going away are going to do fine with whatever they do next.”
Looking ahead to the future, Murphy said, most of this year’s Tommies will likely return to the fold next year.
“We have four [new] players signed for next year already and some good recruits we’re working with.”
Photos by Nathan DeLong/The AQ