There’s a different attitude around this year’s Nipissing Lakers Women’s Hockey Team. A team focused on settling a score, completing the job, exacting revenge. Whatever cliché you want to throw out there, the Lakers are embodying that spirit as they have another chance at lifting their first ever McCaw Cup championship when they play the Toronto Varsity Blues on Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Lakers came up just short last season, losing on home ice to Brock University in the championship game, and 20 players from that team’s roster are suiting up once again for a shot at the top prize in OUA Women’s Hockey.
“We’ve got all sights set this weekend on bringing home the McCaw Cup after having that bitter taste in our mouths last year,” says forward Ashley Taciuk, a Junior out of Oakville, Ontario.
“We’re coming back into this game with a little fire under us.”
A fire that has been ignited by some brilliant performances and timely wins over the last few weeks. For starters, it was Taciuk’s goal in overtime last Friday that lifted the Lakers to a semi-final series victory over the higher ranked Waterloo Warriors.
“We’ve been working hard all year and buying into our systems and that goal was a collective effort of the whole team to put in the work and the time to see it all pay off. It was really neat to get that goal for the team and we we’re excited knowing we were moving on.”
The Lakers are a collective 9-1 in their last ten games going back to January 28. In that stretch they matched up against their McCaw Cup opponents twice with Toronto already having the East division clinched, and in back-to-back games on home ice at Memorial Gardens it was the Lakers winning 2-1 in overtime in both games.
“I felt that was the weekend where we turned things around,” says Lakers Head Coach Darren Turcotte. “We played two solid games against Toronto and I think our focus going into that weekend was just to put a little bit of doubt in the back of their minds and we really felt that at some point over the course of the playoffs we would run into them.”
Goaltender Chantelle Sandquist echos that sentiment.
“Those games against Toronto that went into overtime showed that we could really get the job done and we all came together and played well, it was our one of the better games of our season and I think those two games really helped give us that motivation as we went into the post-season.”
Aiding the Lakers hot play of late is the superb showing from Sandquist who has been solid throughout the four playoff games with a .917 save percentage in 259 minutes of ice time.
“I’ve just been staying with the process,” says Sandquist. “I learned a lot from watching Chloe (Marshall) go through it last year and I’m just staying with the game plan and focusing on the little details.”
Out in front of Sandquist, the Lakers offence has been steadied by the duo of Madison Laberge and Malory Dominico who were named as First Team All-Stars by the OUA earlier this week.
“I received a text message from my sister (Maria) saying congratulations,” says Dominico on receiving the news she was a First Team All-Star. “I’m very excited for that, I think this was one of my better seasons and I’ve worked really hard to get here.”
North Bay native Dominico tied her sister's franchise record for goals (15) and points (26) in a single season and finished tied for the league lead in goals and tied for third overall in the points category. Laberge ended her year with a team high of 17 assists, which was the fourth best mark in the league.
“Tremendous seasons by both of them, it was actually tough for me to decide who to nominate for the all-star teams,” says Turcotte.
“Laberge was great, having to play defence at the beginning of the year and then stepping up into a forward role has really benefitted us, and Malory has really put the puck in the net throughout the entire season.”
Turcotte also had high praise for Katie Chomiak and Maggie McKee who each had 23-point seasons.
“Chomiak has been spectacular the last couple of weeks with a couple of overtime goals against Toronto and then a couple more against Waterloo and Maggie has been a steady presence all season and she knows who to get the puck to on every shift and it has worked out really well for that line.”
Toronto boasts some of the top players in the league as well with Sophomore Forward Nikki McDonald putting up 24 points with 11 goals and Natasha Athanasakos contributing 22 points with 18 assists. They also had a trio of Second Team All-Stars; Forward Taylor Trussler, Defender Olivia Hilton, and Goaltender Erica Fryer all received that recognition while Freshman Kaitlyn McKnight made the All-Rookie team after a 15-point debut season.
These two teams are no strangers to each other in post-season play as they have met three times previously with Nipissing winning two of those matchups. The first came in 2016-17 when the Lakers beat Toronto in two straight in the semi-final series before bowing out to Guelph in the McCaw Cup game.
In 2018-19 in was Toronto winning 3-2 in game three of their first round series to end the Lakers season, with both their wins taking place at Varsity Arena, surrounding a Lakers victory at Memorial Gardens in game two.
Last year it was a one game semi-final showdown (due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the playoffs were formatted as single game eliminations) at Varsity Arena that had a wild opening 20 minutes. Madison Desmerais scored 1:15 into the game. Toronto answered back with two straight before Jetta Derenoski scored a shorthanded goal near the end of the first to tie the game. Derenoski then scored in the second period and the game ended 3-2 to send the Lakers to the McCaw Cup final against Brock.
Turcotte says the Lakers series win over Waterloo last weekend was a great way to prepare for what they will face on Saturday in Toronto.
“The crowd in Waterloo was rambunctious and so we’ve got a pretty good feel for that type of atmosphere,” he says. “I think overall our leadership and experience is going to help us.”
The Lakers have also already qualified for the U-Sports National Championship for a second straight year. That tournament takes place March 16-19 in Montreal.