By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers are a step closer to ending all discussion of their lackluster first-round history after Thursday night's offensive barrage.
Faith Steeves led the charge with four goals and an assist, as the Panthers took Game 1 of the best-of-three quarter-final series against the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues by a score of 8-0.
Jolena Gillard added a goal and four assists, while teammate Kelly Clements scored once and assisted on another. Kristen MacIntyre and Rachel Colle also found the back of the net in the win.
"It wasn't just me, my linemates helped out a lot," Steeves said of her stellar performance. "We had a group meeting before the game today and we said we're going to go out there, play our game, have fun, and we had a lot of success with that."
After missing out on a bye last weekend, the team chose to take the challenge of the first round head on rather than stewing over why the bye slipped through their fingers.
"You could just tell everybody at the rink was ready," Steeves said. "We didn't want to be in the first round of the playoffs, but we embraced it."
The Panthers got off to hot start and set the tone early in the game, when Maria Clinton's cross-ice pass hit the goalie and deflected in front to Clements, who put it away at 1:13.
UPEI added to their lead four minutes later while on the power play. After the puck cycled to Steeves, the speedy forward skated free from defenders and wristed a shot from the high slot past goaltender Audrey Berthiaume.
"One of the keys for us was getting off to a good start," said Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson. "We had a good first period and we were able to capitalize on a couple opportunities."
Steeves was at it again five-and-half minutes into the second, when she tapped home a rebound off Lexie Murphy's redirect attempt as the lead grew to 3-0.
UPEI's special teams continued to play with confidence leading to their fourth goal at 8:07. MacIntyre took a pass from Gillard, skated toward the high slot and fired a wrister off a defender and in. Moncton coach, Marc-André Côté, saw enough and pulled Berthiaume in favour of Melodie Arsenault hoping to turn their fortunes around.
But it didn't.
The Panthers would get to her at 15:27, when Clements found an open Steeves to her left through the neutral zone, where she made a quick move past a defender and wired a shot from the left circle for the hat trick and the 5-0 lead.
"We were ready. We had a game plan and they executed what the coaches asked. It was great to be part of it," Donaldson said following the game.
Coming out of the second intermission, UPEI left nothing to chance and capitalized on another scoring opportunity midway through the third. Gillard showed off her stickhandling skills with a quick deke past a defender, followed by some more trickery when she faked a forehand shot before tucking the backhand past Arsenault.
A minute and a half later, Kaylee Dufresne took the puck from her own zone all the way to the goal line before passing it off to Colle who tapped it in, as the home team pushed the lead to 7-0. They would add one more at 15:17, when Gillard passed it from the end boards in front to a wide open Steeves, who beat the keeper with a quick-release wrist shot.
"This has been her best year," Donaldson said of Steeves. "When she's moving and skating, she's dangerous and it worked out for us."
Defensively, the Panthers were just as strong. Each defender sacrificed their body to block shots and made life difficult for the Aigles Bleues, who struggled to generate quality scoring opportunities. And in the off chance that a shot made it through, Camille Scherger was there to turn it aside with relative ease. She finished with 17 saves and recorded her eighth shutout of the season.
While they're riding a high now, the Panthers are well aware they'll be contending against a hungry and angry team Sunday afternoon in Moncton, where they'll have a chance to close out the series — something they've never done.
"We have to keep ourselves clam and know that it's playoffs and every game is tough," Steeves said. "It's going to be a tougher game, that's for sure. They always play better in their barn."
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan