Guelph, Ont. (Guelph Gryphons) – Judy is coming home. The Guelph Gryphons women's hockey team had to dig deep for a trophy that has a special connection with the program. Guelph stormed back from one-goal deficits on two separate occasions to defeat the Toronto Varsity Blues 4-2 Saturday afternoon at the Gryphon Centre Arena and take the McCaw Cup for the third time in four years.
The Gryphons, who simply refer to the trophy as Judy after the late member of the University of Guelph community Judy McCaw, won the OUA championship for the seventh time in program history. And they had to do it in dramatic fashion, scoring three times in the third period of an intense game where chances were at a premium.
Captain Kaitlin Lowy, who played the final home game of her distinguished five-year career, said the win was a result of her team's character.
"Everyone in that room is ready for battle every night," said Lowy, who had two assists. "We're so positive with each other. There are a lot of players leaving this year and we all want to leave our legacy in the best way possible and that's winning a McCaw Cup and going on and winning a national championship.
"That's just us. We're resilient and desperate and we play with that on our sleeves."
Fourth-year forward Claire Merrick had two goals to take game MVP honours, while Kristen Jay and defenceman Katie Mikkelsen (three points) also scored for the hosts. OUA Goaltender of the Year Valerie Lamenta made 16 saves to secure the win in what was her final appearance at the Gryphon Centre. Lamenta wasn't too busy overall but many of her stops were influential, particularly during an important Guelph penalty kill in the second period that swung momentum.
"It's amazing," said Merrick. "Everyone on this team has worked so hard for this and to spend this moment with them is an incredible feeling."
The Gryphons trailed twice after Blues' forward Kassie Roache tallied a pair of somewhat fortunate goals to give the visitors a 2-1 lead heading into the third period. In a post-game interview, Lamenta said that veteran Mallory Young stepped up in the dressing room during the intermission to tell the team the game was theirs to have.
The players listened.
"Before the game started, we talked about how we hadn't gone down a goal in playoffs," said head coach Rachel Flanagan, who was recently named OUA Coach of the Year for the fifth time. "That was one of our scenarios – what happens if we go down a goal? How are we going to respond?
"We were even keel and responded well. Going into the third period, we said that if we got the next goal, we're going to win the game. They will struggle if we get the next goal and luckily, it was true."
Jay would notch the winner with 11:58 of an incredible third period when she charged towards the net and one-timed a loose puck from the low left circle that eluded Toronto goaltender Erica Fryer to complete the dramatic Guelph comeback. Merrick scored her second of the day to ice it later in the third period, her OUA-leading seventh goal of the playoffs.
"I've always looked for the pass first and shooting as a second option but I'm slowly gaining more confidence to shoot first," said Merrick.
"Claire has been my rock, she's been my linemate for the past three seasons," added Lowy. "I'm nothing without her and this team doesn't achieve what we achieve without her excellence. I'm so honoured to play with her. She makes me look good every day. She's just a gamer and she steps up when the moment counts.
"There is no one that works harder on the ice than her."
Mikkelsen's first goal of the postseason was massive as she got to the back post on a Gryphon power play and buried a cross-crease pass from Karli Shell (two assists) behind Fryer just 31 seconds into the third period to make it 2-2.
Toronto had an excellent opportunity to build on its 2-1 lead in the latter part of the second period with a lengthy five-on-three man advantage but Lamenta continued her strong postseason stretch in which she had allowed just two goals through the first four games. The fifth-year Montreal, QC native came up huge with several key stops during the penalty kill to keep the Gryphons within a goal.
The anticipation built early amongst a big crowd of both Gryphon and Toronto supporters as the pre-game ceremony included major award and all-star presentations. Once the puck finally dropped, the hosts wasted little time pressuring the Varsity Blues, who came away with a 1-0 win back at the Gryphon Centre when the teams last met on Feb. 16 in the regular season finale.
Despite Guelph's aggressive start, it was Toronto that managed to score the crucial opener when Roache unleashed a point shot that nicked a Gryphon defender and deflected high past an unsuspecting Lamenta with 8:10 left in the first period.
But the hosts bounced right back and notched the equalizer about two and half minutes later. Shell took a shot from the left point and Merrick got a stick down to direct it past Fryer, much to the delight of the vocal Gryphon supporters.
Roache almost had another less than two minutes before the intermission when she was sprung for a breakaway but Lamenta coolly denied the big shot from in close. She would get eventually get her second of the day and fifth of the playoffs early in the second period on a strange play. OUA Defender of the Year Cristine Chao took a shot from the left wing on a two-on-one and the puck bounced off the back boards right to Roache, whose desperate swipe at it went off Lamenta and in for a 2-1 Toronto lead.
Guelph's seventh McCaw Cup win ranks as the third most in OUA history behind only Toronto's 17 and Laurier's 11.
"I'm just so proud of everyone and how they poured their hearts out," said Lowy. "I couldn't have asked for a better way to go out on this ice, with 25 players strong, the support staff, the coaches, everyone that was involved.
It's a big win for us and I'm going to remember forever."
Flanagan said that she saw a bond develop on a preseason trip to New York City in September. The Gryphons played an exhibition game and made it out to a Yankees game but it was the connection among teammates that caught the coach's attention.
"They were so together at that moment," Flanagan said. "There has been some ups and downs like every team has but the way they behaved on that trip with each other, and the after, they all said thank you and were so appreciative of the opportunity. The way they treat our bus driver, our training staff, our equipment people, they are a character group of women.
"And that's why they were able to come together."
Both teams will now focus on the U SPORTS championship in Charlottetown, PEI next week (March 14-17).