Mount Allison‚Äôs hockey Mounties have had a hard time replacing their former all-star goalie Megan Carly-Byrne, shown in action in this file photo.
While his hockey team may not be exactly in the position he envisioned at the beginning of the campaign, coach Zach Ball knows the reason it is languishing in fourth place in the Atlantic University Women‚Äôs Hockey League and is confident they have found the solution for success and is taking direct aim at a third place standing and a hot finish heading into the playoffs.
The Lady Mounties got off to a sputtering start due to a combination of factors, not the least being the need to find a solid goaltender, one who could not only take the place of the incomparable Megan Carly-Byrne but also one who had the ability to steal a game or two for the team. And, of course, as with a team starting several newcomers, it was a case of finding the correct line combinations.
"I believe," said Ball during a recent review on the situation, "that we finally have settled on a number one goalie and have the right pieces in place as far as line combinations are concerned."
While the team had recruited strongly, including the acquisition of a pair of highly touted goalies, it has been the sudden emergence of a veteran backup who has stepped up to give the Mounties a good chance of winning games.
"We were outplaying some of our opponents earlier in the year but were coming up short," says Ball. "This wasn't all because of inexperienced puck stopping but also because we didn't have the right combinations - players who complemented each other - on the ice."
Kate O'Brien who was number three on the goalie depth chart a year ago has taken over the role of guarding the twine and has been in nets for 10 of the 13 outings. She has put together an .870 save percentage and allowed just 3.20 goals a game. Going into the lengthy Christmas break, the team has five wins against eight defeats. It also has a history of starting slow and kicking up their game during the second half as the playoffs loom on the horizon.
With O'Brien in goal the Mounties are on a two game winning streak with a pair of close and hard fought victories. They upended the Dalhousie Tigers 4-3 at the local civic centre and the next night journeyed to Fredericton where they took down a nemesis ‚Äď the St. Thomas Tommies ‚Äď by a 2-1 count.
The St. Francis Xavier Xaverians have built a powerhouse over the years and are invariably ranked among the top 10 in the nation but can be vulnerable. Two years ago they were eliminated in the semi-finals by the UPEI Panthers, who proceeded to topple the Mounties in the final for the crown.
Meanwhile, the St. Mary's Huskies have returned from the grave to recruit some of the country's outstanding talent. It was only two years ago that the SMU athletic director announced the demise of ladies hockey but such an uproar ensued that the decision was hastily reversed and they now have come on to hold down second place and provide a challenge for the X-Women.
It's also interesting to note that the University of Moncton, another team that has held a spot near the top of the standings for several seasons, has succumbed to the Mounties this season on two occasions, both by identical 1-0 scores, with O'Brien rising to the occasion.
Ball says local support for his team has grown immensely, especially with girls in the minor hockey system.
"They attend our games in fairly large numbers and offer a lot of vocal and emotional support, he says. "As a result, many of our players will stay and support them and some nice relationships have been forged."
Courtney King has emerged as the scoring leader for the Mounties with five goals and seven helpings in 13 games. Her output shot up when she was united with Lindsay Jones and sophomore Shelby Colton and this is one unit being counted on to play a vital role in the second half drive. Ball said others have made adjustments to their game noting it is a huge step to the level of play experienced at the university level. One with unlimited potential is Danielle Bourgeois of Moncton who has size, speed and reach and should prove to be a vital cog in the years ahead.
Ball doesn't believe a recent decision by the CIS will have much impact on his Mounties since it simply increases the amount of funding lady hockey players can receive. At the moment varsity athletes can receive support equal to the university tuition and fees but the decision would increase this to where they might be able to offer a total coverage of such things as room and board. He believes it might discourage more girls from heading to the US but only by those schools with deep pockets able to afford such expenditures.
Meanwhile, the Lady Mounties offer the best deal in town. They play all their home games at the civic centre with no admission fee charged, even though attendance is fairly consistent. All they ask is that fans purchase a ticket on their 50-50 draw, not only supporting the team but also having a chance to win a fair amount of cash.