It happened fast, but the moment was felt by everyone in attendance.
During a Nov. 16 tilt against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, Chloe Snaith curled into the high slot and fired a shot low past the outstretched foot of Huskies netminder Camryn Drever. The goal horn blasted — echoing off the walls of Wayne Fleming Arena — drowned out by a collective exhale by fans and media alike.
It was four games since the last time Snaith had scored for the Bisons, but more concerning, the two Snaith goals bookended a four-game scoring drought for the once offensively-dominant herd.
The U of M led Canada West in goals during the 2018-19 season with 81 — six more than the second-place University of Alberta Pandas — after placing second in 2017-18 and 2016-17 with 66 and 84 goals respectively.
Yet, with 17 goals through 15 games, the club is on pace for 29 on the season. This would put the Bisons last among teams in the conference last season. In 2018-19 the University of Calgary Dinos finished dead-last in the conference with 32 goals.
The problem: An abundance of youth
The current U of M Bisons team is a young one. Heading into the final weekend before the holiday break, the 23-player roster featured 10 rookies and three second-year players.
The lone fifth-year up front is veteran goal-scorer Jordyn Zacharias, yet she has struggled to find the back of the net in her senior season. She entered the final weekend before the holiday break with a single goal, but notched the game-winner in overtime Nov. 30 against the University of Lethbridge.
Slightly more consistent scoring has come from the back-end, where fourth-year defender Jenai Buchanan has become a welcome replacement for Erica Rieder — the strong and highly mobile former captain and defender for the U of M. Buchanan currently sits with two goals and five assists on the year, leading the Bisons in scoring.
Fellow defender Snaith has five points — two goals and three assists.
Emilie Massé leads the Bisons in goals so far this season, but her offensive output has dried up after a blazing start to the season. The third-year forward had four goals in the first five games of the season, yet has not bent twine in the 11 games since.
The reason for this lack of scoring is quite simple — the Bisons are not currently built to score goals. The team is too young and inexperienced.
The chemistry is being built, and there are flashes of a dominant offensive juggernaut on the ice from time to time, but at present the young roster does not have the consistency and fluidity of play to put up the scoring totals of Bisons teams past.
This is not to say the herd is not generating chances — far from it — but players on the team are simply not capitalizing on chances they get, nor are they generating many high-danger scoring opportunities.
Offence will come, but you cannot teach comfort and experience. Yet there are still things to be done to give the U of M a better chance at scoring goals.
The obvious solution: Patience and tinkering
The best the U of M can do now is wait. It takes time to get used to the speed, strength and skill of Canada West hockey and with the number of rookies and inexperienced second-year players on the roster, time will be the best teacher for the Bisons.
This is not to say there is nothing head coach Jon Rempel and his coaching staff can do to fire up the offence.
Rempel has already done a good job of letting the leash drop on his defenders — namely, Buchanan — who have the skill and skating ability to lead the offence from end to end, so pushing Lauren Warkentin — who has shown her own scoring touch — to do the same is essential.
Snaith has already showed her scoring skill, but Brielle Dacquay-Neveux has yet to register a point on the year. Allowing both to show their creativity and skill on the forecheck should also factor into Rempel’s plans moving forward.
The line of former St. Mary’s Academy teammates Kaitlyn Chatyrbok, Kate Gregoire and Halle Edwards has been buzzing, but has not produced much offence thus far. With Gregoire and Edwards as rookies and Chatyrbok used to a more defensive role, patience is again key for this line starting to produce.
Leave the three together, let them build off their built-in chemistry and goals will surely follow.
Finally, there is the elephant in the room — the fact Zacharias is not lighting the lamp with nearly the efficiency she used to. She finished second on the team in goals last season with 12 goals, first on the team in 2017-18 with the same total and first in the 2016-17 season with 11 goals.
So, what happened? Well, for the past two seasons Zacharias has been the shooter.
She has consistently played with the likes of Venla Hovi — now behind the bench for the U of M — and Alanna Sharman, two players who drove play at both ends of the ice. Hovi was an ultra-skilled forward who dominated the competition with her Olympic experience, while Sharman was tenacious and forceful when it came to gaining the puck.
Those two pushed the puck up the ice and toward the net, while Zacharias was the finisher. Now, she is on her own and does not drive play like Sharman and Hovi did.
To this point, nobody on the Bisons has emerged to fill this particular void. Massé and newcomer Polina Goncharova have shown glimpses of this ability, but short of bending U Sports regulations to get Hovi back on the ice, Rempel needs to bring out the blender and find a solution.
Until then, patience is all the Bisons need.