Almost a year to the day after being swept out of the playoffs in the semi-finals by the Kootenay Wildcats, the Fraser Valley Phantom got their revenge when Brianna Keats struck 68 seconds into overtime to eliminate the Wildcats in a two-game sweep and put the Phantom into the B.C. Championship against the Thompson-Okanagan Rockets.
A jam-packed Langley Sportsplex played host to the semi-final, with game one an 8:15 p.m. Friday night start. With a record of 7 wins and 0 losses against the Wildcats, and having outscored them 30-6, the Phantom came into the series overwhelming favourites.
With the painful memory of last season's early playoff exit against a Kootenay team they'd dominated much of that season, the Phantom weren't taking anything for granted. After a regular season augmented by tough exhibition series against the Warner Warriors (finished second in JWHL playoffs this season) and Okanagan Hockey Academy (made the final at the Notre Dame tournament), and including road trips to major tournaments in Saskatchewan (Notre Dame) and Calgary (Mac's Midget AAA), this season's Phantom showed up ready for the increased intensity of the playoffs.
The opening faceoff augured well for the Phantom, with a won draw, and a tic-tac-toe transition leading to a shot on net less than 10 seconds in. Payge Pena drew a Kootenay penalty less than four minutes in when the dangerous centre took a pass, cut into the slot, but was hauled down just before she could get her shot off.
A Too Many Men call against the Phantom right at the 10-minute mark put the Wildcats on the power play, but the Phantom's own wildcat, Simran Sidhu, singlehandedly skated the visitors into frustration, hemming them in their own zone for much of the man advantage. The teams traded power plays again in the last five minutes of the first, but the period ended 0-0 despite the Phantom controlling possession and shots (12-4). A good start to the playoffs in terms of everything but the score.
The second period held more of the same, with the Phantom clearly the better team, but unable to break through on the scoresheet. Both teams enjoyed a couple of power plays in the second, but neither could find the back of the net. The Phantom were all over the Wildcats 5-on-5, and the only chances Kootenay created were on the power play. Laticia Castillo made a couple of big saves shorthanded in the second to keep the game scoreless, and Sidhu continued to play like a girl possessed, skating hard every shift and creating unending havoc in the Kootenay zone.
After 40 minutes the game remained deadlocked 0-0, and it began to look as though the first team to make a mistake would lose the game. No fun for moms and dads watching, fearing the mistake as much as cheering for the big goal. Every pass, shot, and puck battle took on greater meaning.
A Phantom penalty two minutes into the third had fans chewing on their nails, as the Wildcats sensed their chance to steal a game they had no business winning. Once again the Phantom stood tall and killed the penalty, and from there the home team took over play almost completely. Outshooting the Wildcats 17-8 in the final frame, the Phantom outworked, outskated, and outplayed their opponents all over the ice. Still, the game Wildcats wouldn't go away, and when the Phantom got a power play with 4:53 to go in the game, fingers formerly chewed became entwined for luck or clasped together in prayer.
A won draw and patience on the puck saw the always dependable and longest-serving Phantom, Madison Sands, scoot in from the blue line and absolutely hammer home the game-winning goal with 3:10 to go. Pena and Sidhu got the assists, but the goal was all Sands, as she drifted into the high slot and hit the puck as hard and accurate as she possibly could, fitting the rocket into a puck-sized hole over the Kootenay goalie's right shoulder. A well-deserved goal for the whole Phantom team, as every player had contributed to a strong, dominant effort.
Celebration was tempered by the knowledge there was still plenty of time left for the resilient Kootenay squad to even the score, but the Phantom played solid the rest of the way and Castillo shut the door to crush any hope of a comeback. Sidhu scored into an empty net with four seconds left, a nice reward for a player who showed positive energy and smart aggression all game long. Final shots were 39-18 for the Phantom, with Castillo picking up a well-earned shutout and Sidhu tallying a goal and an assist. Sands' goal was the only power play marker in 11 opportunities between both teams, but it came at an absolutely critical time.
In their previous eight games the Phantom were between 70-75% in the faceoff circle, but the intensity of the playoffs showed up as the Phantom dropped to just 53% on draws.
Just over 12 hours later it was back to the rink for an 11:45 a.m. start to game two on St. Patrick's Day. The Wildcats were looking to extend the series to three games, and the Phantom were looking to lock things up in two and save some energy for a spot in the finals.
Once again the Phantom were easily the better team 5-on-5. They increased their shot total from the game before from 39 to 45, decreased shots against from 18 to 16, and improved from 21 wins, 19 losses (53%) in the faceoff circle to 35 wins, 9 losses (80%).
But goals--not statistics--win games, and despite carrying the play in almost every category imaginable, the Phantom found themselves down 3-1 heading into the third period courtesy of one important hockey statistic: the power play.
Things started well for the Phantom when Katie Wardell took a pass off the wall, danced parallel to the blueline, and got off a blast from the point that the Kootenay goalie could only kick out to a waiting Marisa Ricci, who made no mistake burying the rebound to put the Phantom up 1-0 under two minutes in. With seven 1994s on the team--six of whom are returnees from last season--there was some nostalgia in the opening goal being scored with all six returnees on the ice: from the goalie, Alexandra Frisk, to the defensive pair of Madison Sands and Katie Wardell, to the Old Girls Line of Renee Lemieux, Marisa Ricci, and Caitlyn Younger, every player on the ice was in their final year of eligibility. A great way to start one of the biggest games of the year.
The Phantom carried good energy from the night before and from the opening goal into the rest of the first period, outshooting and outplaying the Wildcats comprehensively. But with the defence caught up near the Kootenay net, the Wildcats launched a quick counterattack to level the score 1-1 with four minutes to go in the opening period. Shots were 15-7 after one, and the Phantom failed to convert on either of the two power plays they enjoyed.
A couple of terrible, soft calls put the Wildcats on a short 5-on-3, and they cashed in 5-on-4 to go up 2-1. Credit to Coach Reed for getting the Phantom turned around, because the two shifts after the 2-1 goal were two of the best Phantom shifts this writer has ever seen. Unrelenting pressure, cycling, and shots failed to produce a goal, but there could be little doubt the Phantom were wearing the Wildcats down.
But another Kootenay power play put the visitors up 3-1. With a very aggressive Phantom penalty kill that saw defenders deep in the offensive zone, the Wildcats took advantage to strike for their second consecutive power play goal and go 2-for-4 over two periods. The Phantom were all over the Wildcats, but an 0-for-4 power play after 40 minutes saw them head into period three down 3-1. Shots were 24-13 for the Phantom after two periods, but at least that many or more had hit posts, or gone just wide or high. The score clock said 3-1 for Kootenay after two, but it could just as easily have been 8-3 for the Phantom.
Whatever was said between the second and third period by Coach Reed was exactly what the girls needed to hear, as they came out and continued to dominate and outplay their opponents. Despite having no luck on the power play and getting not one favourable bounce anywhere on the ice, the Phantom stayed with the game plan and continued to play as a team and push for goals.
With 13 minutes to go Wardell opened the floodgates when she took a pass from Lemieux and unloaded a howitzer from the point that found nothing but net. After watching the puck blow by the beaten Kootenay goalie, the already fully-charged Phantom seemed to skate a little faster and shoot a little harder. Complete and absolute domination was turned aside by the Kootenay goalie for the next ten minutes as she flopped, scrambled, and dove to frustrate the Phantom as she had all weekend.
After what seemed like the tenth massive scrum of bodies, sticks, and skates crowding the Kootenay net as the puck was jammed back and forth, a Kootenay defender closed her hand on the puck in the crease to keep it out. The referee immediately pointed to centre for a penalty shot. Even the most casual of observers of the Phantom would have had no problem selecting Payge Pena to take the shot, and the crafty, skilled centre wound up at centre and skated in on the Wildcats goalie with just minutes left, with the Phantom desperately needing a goal to tie the game and avoid giving the Wildcats a huge boost before a do-or-die game three.
Full credit to the brave Kootenay goalie, who came well out and surprised Pena near the high slot. Pena couldn't even get a shot off, but shook off the miss and got right back to business.
Cue the series of dramatic events that would win the Phantom their first franchise playoff series, and send them into the B.C. Finals.
Coach Reed pulled goalie Alexandra Frisk, and grinding Phantom pressure produced a faceoff in the Kootenay zone. An innocent looking faceoff saw Pena simply push the puck forward, and the Kootenay goalie, cheating out well past her blue paint, was caught stranded between her net and the faceoff circle, the puck sitting in the blue paint with what seemed like miles of white ice between it and the nearest player.
Fortunately for the home team the nearest Phantom was Delaney Duchek, who physically willed her way past a couple of checks and poked the lonely puck home to knot the game 3-3 with 37 seconds left. Wave after wave of Phantom pressure had finally knocked the Wildcats down, and the weight of fate seemed to sit heavy on the visitors as they lamented what could have been. Redemption for Pena, who missed a penalty shot to tie the game, but whose incredible 18 wins, 4 losses (82%) in the faceoff circle led directly to her assisting on the tying goal.
A ten-minute sudden-death overtime commenced forthwith. Big thanks to Coach Reed for accepting the two overtime offers he was given up in Penticton in February. Playing the mighty OHA to two consecutive exhibition 1-1 ties, Reed did the unpopular and accepted the challenge of overtime on both occasions. Criticized for not taking the ties against a big program, Coach Reed chose valuable experience over meaningless bragging rights. While the Phantom lost both games to OHA, they learned and gained confidence. No amount of practice could have taught them what they learned in those two hard-fought overtime games in Penticton.
Completely unafraid of overtime in a game where the score mattered, the Phantom didn't waste time finishing things or keep their fans in suspense. 68 seconds in to the fourth period, Katie Wardell capped off a three-point game by finding Brianna Keats with a pass in stride; Keats got outside position on her defender, created enough room to load up and shoot, and drove into the faceoff circle and wired home the sudden-death overtime game- and series-winning goal. How many kids can say they've done something that special?
With her father dressed as a screaming Leprechaun just feet away at the end glass, Keats and her teammates savoured the moment in a big dogpile while fans slapped the glass and screamed and cheered and cheered and cheered...
Finals shots were 45-16 for the Phantom.
Two practices and then a big weekend in Langley.
Championship Final: Phantom v. Rockets.