The Manitoba Women's High School Hockey League playoffs are getting underway this week, and the Portage Collegiate Saints can't wait.
While the PCI Saints have had a tough season, finishing it off with a record of 2-18-2, head coach Jo-Anne Clark-Gillespie says the team they have on the ice now compared to the one they had in October is entirely different.
"When you look at the big picture, and the entire 22 games that we played leading up to the playoffs, where we started from and where we are now, is a totally different team," Clark-Gillespie continues. "We've actually had a couple of on-ice officials the last few weeks mention to the coaches that it's really obvious how much this team has grown. We gauge our success based on our development as a team and the girls' development individually."
The head coach says the team is playing their best hockey systematically but a few injuries are preventing them from being at their very best. Clark-Gillespie says, with that being the case, they're focusing on the mental aspects of hockey leading up to Game 1.
She describes how the first-round series will be formatted.
"In this division that we're in, there's only six teams. So, the top two teams get a bye into the semi-finals, and then it's three vs six and four vs five," Clark-Gillespie explains. "We're playing the third-placed Dakota Lancers. So, when you look at that format, anybody can beat anybody. We've had really close games with Dakota and played really well. So, the girls are pretty positive. We're underdogs for sure but we have a chance to win."
PCI played Dakota five times this season; three of those were decided by two goals or less. The head coach talks about what they'll be looking to capitalize on in this best-of-three series.
"There were a couple of close games where we, honestly, out-skated them and controlled the play but we just couldn't score," says Clark-Gillespie. "They have, undoubtably, the best player in our division, Brenya Kapusta (41 points in 22 games). She can control a whole game. I'm not the type of coach that likes to focus on the other team but we have to be aware when she's on the ice. We have to learn to shut her down because then you take away a majority of their offence."
The Saints will open this series on the road tomorrow before returning to Portage for Game 2 on Friday.
"I always tell the girls, those 22 games are just the preseason. The real season starts this week," says Clar-Gillespie. "I've been in this league 16 years, and I've seen those fifth and sixth-place teams going on to win the division. Anything is possible."