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Goaltenders are arguably the most important part of a hockey team. They’re the last line of defence and can single-handedly carry a team to glory. This responsibility makes the choice of whom to put between the pipes a long and difficult one. Just look at the Leafs: Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have been battling for a spot all season at the Air Canada Centre.
While these two have the hockey world divided, they haven’t been the only goalies in Toronto vying for their team’s top job.
The Ryerson women’s hockey team has struggled since its start in inter-university play back in 2011 — recording only three wins in their first two seasons combined. This wasn’t a big surprise for a new team, but the unexpected emergence of goaltending prowess has turned its playoff hopes into a possibility this year.
Just a third of the way through the current season, the team has already surpassed the total number of wins it racked up last year. Cassandra McNichol, Alex Armstrong and Emma Crawley are big reasons why — posting a 2.67 goals against average in nine games.
Just like the Leafs, the question of who to start is one interim head coach Pierre Alain tackles before each game.
“Every coach hopes for this situation,” he said. “They push each other. It’s good for them and it’s good for the team, but it makes my decision hard to make.”
Alain called on McNichol to open the season in early October. She’s by far the most experienced of the three, coming off a stint in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and having played for the University of Guelph. However, the 25-year-old’s experience wasn’t enough to stop the Varsity Blues, who snuck four goals past her in the first period.
“There’s expectations based on my resumé,” she said. “He threw me in thinking I could do it, but I guess the pressure got to me.”
McNichol was pulled before the start of the second in favour of Armstrong. As a first-year student, she is the youngest option for Alain. A solid relief performance earned her a start in the second game. However, Armstrong, 18, wasn’t able to carry over her success as the team was blown out by another crosstown rival, losing 5-2 to York.
With another lacklustre season looming, Alain turned to the only remaining netminder in his repertoire: Crawley. She was entering her third year with the team, but a devastating concussion in practice last October forced her to miss much of the previous season.
“I couldn’t lift weights or go for runs,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn’t recover. It’s tough because you sit there falling behind while everyone is out there getting ahead.”
Crawley, 20, would have had a valid excuse if she had failed, but she didn’t have to use it.
She allowed only one goal against Brock, and the team picked up its first win of the season. Riding the hot hand, Alain kept with Crawley in net and was not disappointed. She carried the team with a sparkling .939 save percentage over her five games that included a 5-0 shutout win over Laurentian.
Just when the team thought they found their No. 1, Armstrong reignited the debate. With a back-to-back against Windsor and Western, Alain had to rely on one of his other goalies. Armstrong got the start against the sixth-ranked Western Mustangs and pulled out a shocking shutout victory for the Rams — the biggest win by far in the team’s short history.
“I didn’t expect to be one of the top goalies this year,” said Armstrong. “I wanted to show my team that I work hard and help in any way. Our goaltending has helped our team a lot and I just want to contribute to that.”
Alain stuck with Armstrong against the No. 3 ranked Queen’s Gaels this past Sunday, but she couldn’t repeat her previous performance. Armstrong was pulled after allowing four goals in the first period of a 7-1 defeat. Despite the loss, the team has already set a record for wins in a season (three) after only nine games.
“Especially in this league, goaltending is so important,” said Alain. “The forwards have good skills, but goaltending affects the game the most here. If you don’t have it, you’re in trouble.”
Alain is in no rush to declare his No. 1 and is comfortable with his current situation. Crawley seems to be the slight favourite, given her success over consecutive games. She credits the entire team for boosting her performance.
“Age and experience has helped us,” she said. “Once you get in the groove of what to expect from this level, you get better. Once you’re established, you can find other good recruits that want to be here. Our defence is an entire team effort.”
Despite the heated competition, McNichol, Armstrong and Crawley all consider themselves friends. They hang out outside of hockey and help each other with homework, which they have agreed is uncommon among goalies.
The trio also insists the rivalry isn’t going anywhere.
“Age is a factor in trying to keep up with these youngsters, but it’s been a fun time,” said McNichol. “I haven’t gotten to play since (the first game), but I’m still gunning to outshine both of them … in a loving manner.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 13, 2013.