Firmly in front

Special teams edge keeps Gaels atop OUA

Forward Morgan McHaffie is tied for second in OUA scoring with 22 points.
Forward Morgan McHaffie is tied for second in OUA scoring with 22 points.

With nine games to go, women’s hockey could be en route to another league banner.

Just past the midpoint of the regular season, women’s hockey (11-1-3) is sitting pretty in first place in the OUA. They earned another two road victories last weekend, routing the Laurentian Voyageurs 5-0 and squeaking by the Nipissing Lakers 4-3 in overtime.

The nationally second-ranked Gaels have been a pleasant surprise this year. They’re among the younger teams in the province with 11 rookies and just four senior players in their lineup.

Queen’s has received significant production from this year’s first-year class, including eight goals and seven assists from forward Clare McKellar. The London native has two game-winners this season and leads the OUA in rookie scoring.

“We have a lot of new faces and we knew there would be an adjustment period, but the newcomers have worked hard to fit into the culture here and it’s paid off,” said Gaels head coach Matt Holmberg. “[McKellar] has good chemistry with our vets and I’m glad she’s being rewarded.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Gaels’ early success has been their top-notch special teams play. Queen’s is ranked second in the OUA with the man advantage, converting on 16.4 per cent of their power play opportunities. They’re ranked first in the country in penalty killing at 94.6 per cent.

“In a lot of tight games in our league, special teams play usually makes the difference and we’ve been working hard to improve in both categories this season,” Holmberg said.

“We’ve dedicated almost the entire Thursday night practices on working on our special teams.”

The Gaels’ efficient shorthanded play represents a dramatic turnaround from last season, when they killed off just 81.7 per cent of their penalties.

Defensively, Queen’s has been led by the steady presence of sophomore Alisha Sealey and third-year Mary Coughlin. The Gaels have given up just 27 goals in 15 games, and when the defence makes a rare mistake, goaltenders Mel Dodd-Moher and Caitlyn Lahonen have stood tall.

Both goalies are allowing less than two goals per game, while posting save percentages of .929 and .949, respectively.

“We try to make playing good defence a team objective. Sealey and Coughlin played together for most of last year and they’re leading our team this year in plus-minus and have played some big-time minutes,” Holmberg said. “Both of our goalies have been solid and deserve a lot of the credit for our successes so far.”

While the schedule gets a little bit tougher in the second half of the season, with a four-game road trip to end the year, Holmberg is optimistic that his team will be able to sustain their level of success into the playoffs.

With their strong goaltending and by continuing to dominate on special teams, the Gaels have a good chance to win back-to-back OUA championships for the first time in program history.

“I’m confident in our team’s abilities, particularly since we’ve been working really hard,” Holmberg said.

“Based on how we’ve performed thus far, we obviously need to refine things and it’s a very competitive league, but I think we can remain as one of the top teams in the OUA this year.”

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