Defensive dynamos

With a top-notch blueline, the Gaels remain title contenders

Defencemen Mary Coughlin (above), Danielle Girard and Alisha Sealey have combined for 69 points since 2012.
Defencemen Mary Coughlin (above), Danielle Girard and Alisha Sealey have combined for 69 points since 2012.

Even with the departures of their top scorer and top goalie, women’s hockey remains among the OUA’s best squads.

The Gaels fell one game shy of repeating as the province’s champions last year, losing to the Laurier Golden Hawks in the third game of the OUA finals.

While forward Morgan McHaffie — last year’s captain — and former starting goaltender Mel Dodd-Moher both graduated, taking away some of the Gaels’ experience, the rest of the team’s core remains. Add in a talented recruiting class, and Queen’s is a front-runner for the provincial title this year.

Several forwards will have to step up to produce offence after McHaffie’s departure.

Newly-minted captain Shawna Griffin was tied for eighth in the OUA with 26 points, while fourth-year Taryn Pilon has posted consecutive 20-point campaigns.

Head coach Matt Holmberg said the experience Griffin — the only player left over from the Gaels’ 2011-12 championship squad — brings will help a Queen’s team made up of younger players.

“[She’s] been a captain-in-waiting,” he said.

The 2014 playoff run gave the team’s second-year players the additional experience needed to make another attempt at the crown this season. One of the leaders of the team’s youth movement is forward Clare McKellar, whose 20 points were second-highest among all rookies last season and earned her a spot on the OUA’s All-Rookie team.

Incoming winger Addi Halladay will play a prominent role for the team offensively. Along with defenceman Amber Sealey, a first-year Gael should net a spot on the OUA All-Rookie team for the fifth time in six years.

The pair are half of a strong group of rookies, as first-year goaltenders Stephanie Pascal and Claire Warren provide the Gaels’ depth behind third-year netminder Caitlyn Lahonen.

“All four of the true rookies have integrated themselves well with the team,” Holmberg said. “Halladay and Sealey look like they’ve been playing in the league for years.”

The Gaels added one other new player over the off-season: former Laurier Golden Hawks captain Fiona Lester, a versatile fifth-year that can play up front and on the back end. While her two OUA All-Star appearances came as a blueliner, she’s suiting up as a forward for the Gaels, due in part to Queen’s defensive depth.

The team possesses one of the OUA’s best defence corps. Sealey’s older sister Alisha and fourth-years Mary Coughlin and Danielle Girard lead a group that held their opposition to 44 goals last season.

“I believe we have one of the best D cores,” Holmberg said. “We’ve got excellent mobility and experience on defence. We’ve got the added bonus of being able to utilize Fiona Lester as well.”

Part of the reason Queen’s allows so few goals is Holmberg’s commitment to discipline. The squad has been the OUA’s least-penalized team for the last two seasons, an important goal for the coach.

The final piece to guaranteeing the Gaels remain among Ontario’s best at keeping the puck out of their net is Lahonen. In limited playing time last season, the NCAA transfer posted a 1.38 goals against average and a .944 save percentage.

Queen’s kicks off their season this weekend when they host the Nipissing Lakers and the Laurentian Lady Vees. The Gaels swept the season series against both teams during the 2013-14 season.

In addition to Laurier, the Guelph Gryphons and the Western Mustangs should challenge the Gaels once for OUA supremacy in both the regular season and playoffs.

Holmberg isn’t as concerned with where the Gaels sit in the standings, noting the team has made three of the last four OUA finals without once sitting among the league’s top two teams at the end of the year.

“As long as you’re good to go when it counts, anything can happen,” he said. “If we can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be top four."

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