The UPEI Panthers women’s hockey team has carried a strong showing as U Sports hosts into the best first half in the program’s history.
The Panthers are 14-3-1, good for second in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference and were ranked fifth in last week’s U Sport top-10 list.
Head coach Bruce Donaldson pointed to the experience of hosting the nationals in March as a factor. The Panthers, who lost two close contests in the Canadian competition, will host this year’s championship March 11-15.
“I think it gave them a real confidence (boost) . . . knowing that if we work hard, stick to the systems we’re trying to (play), we’re engaged and play with passion, this team can compete,” Donaldson said. “Clearly, we’ve shown that in the first term.”
The Panthers and St. Thomas Tommies are the only teams to beat conference-leading Saint Mary’s Huskies (16-2-0) during the regular season. It comes after UPEI went 14-13-1 in the 2018-19 regular season and lost both games of a best-of-three quarter-final with the UNB Reds.
“We’ve accomplished (as much) in this first half than we had in the whole season in terms of wins,” the bench boss said.
UPEI went 6-1 in pre-season play and 6-1 to start the regular season. It lost 4-1 to the Huskies, who were second in U Sports’ rankings last week, and 3-1 to the Tommies before completing the 2019 portion of the schedule with a 5-2 loss to the St. FX X-Women Saturday at MacLauchlan Arena.
“I really loved our energy in the first period. I think we just kind of ran out of fuel,” Donaldson said.
UPEI defeated the Dalhousie Tigers 3-0 Friday in Halifax and didn’t get back to Charlottetown until 3 a.m. Saturday.
The Panthers led 2-0 after the first period Saturday afternoon as rookies Lexie Murphy and Tiah Scichilone each scored their first AUS goals. Murphy, a Kensington native, scored 58 seconds into the game while Scichilone tallied with 1:15 left in the opening period.
“They’ve both been working really, really hard,” Donaldson said of the rookies. “Lexie’s been awfully close a couple of times, so it’s great (to see the puck go in).”
St. FX’s Emerson Elliott scored 3:18 into the second period and it took some of the wind out of the Panthers’ sails while energizing the X-Women. Lacey Dimaulo tied the game 2-2 11:54 into the middle frame and the score held up heading to the third.
Tyra Meropoulis scored the natural hat trick in the third. It included an even-strength, game-winning goal, plus one shorthanded and another on the power play. She added an assist for a four-point game.
UPEI went 0-for-9 on the power play, including an extended 5-on-3.
“That’s the difference right there,” Donaldson acknowledged.
The Panthers played without captain Rachel Colle (broken finger) and goalie Camille Scherger, who was given the weekend off after being sick this week. Both will be back in the lineup after the Christmas break.
The Panthers will head to Montreal after Christmas for exhibition games with Concordia, who was ranked first in the U Sports list last week, Montreal and Bishop’s. They begin 2020 portion of the regular season on Wednesday, Jan. 8, at Moncton.