From national champs to underdogs

It’s not often in sports that the defending champion is able to fly under the radar. But that’s exactly the situation the Alberta Pandas women’s hockey team find themselves in.

The Pandas, who beat the McGill Martlets in last year’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) gold medal game to claim the national title, come into this tournament ranked sixth of six. But does that put a chip on the shoulders of the defending champs coming into this year’s tournament?

“Absolutely,” said Panda’s captain Leah Copeland. “Any time you lose your conference final, it’s hard to take and nobody wants to come in as the team who qualified just because of our win last year, so we’re going to use that as motivation and just go from there.”

The Pandas picked up where they left off last year in the regular season, finishing first overall in the Canada West conference. However, as Copeland mentioned, they lost in the conference final to the Manitoba Bisons, who not only knocked off Hayley Wickenheiser’s Calgary Dinos in the semifinals, but come into this tournament ranked third.

However, the Canada West conference saw more heated competition than ever before as Alberta, Manitoba, Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan all finished within two wins of each other in the regular season standings.

“In our conference it really could’ve been any one of four teams that advanced,” said Alberta head coach Howie Draper. “But even the teams who are at the lower end of the league are still very good teams. They beat some of the top teams throughout the year, so it was a really a case where any team could’ve won on any night.”

While, going from national champions to the lowest seed at the tournament is a bit surprising, according to Draper, it’s a good sign in the big picture.

“It’s nice to be able to win year, after year, after, but when that’s happening it means the hockey’s not at the level it needs to be, he said. “So I think it’s just an indication that women’s hockey around the country is getting stronger and stronger.”

The Pandas will start their tournament today at 4:00 with a game against the McGill Martlets, who come in ranked number one. Underdogs or not, Copeland knows that her team will have to work to prove themselves.

“Every team here is good, it’s the top six in the country,” she said. “I’m not too worried about coming in ranked sixth, but we know we’re going to have to fight through every game and that’s what we’ve learned through the season and the playoffs.”

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