Lighting the lamp against the hometown St. Albert Raiders was a proud moment for Olympic gold medallist Meaghan Mikkelson.
In the shootout the Canadian national women's hockey team defenceman thrilled the crowd of just over 2,100 at Northstar Hyundai Arena on a memorable Monday night by going upstairs on midget AAA netminder Pat Dea to rattle the water bottle on top of the net.
"It was a really great feeling to score in your hometown in front of such an amazing crowd," Mikkelson told the Gazette after the 4-3 decision. "I'm proud to say in front of my teammates that I'm from St. Albert because that was absolutely amazing and to come home and play in front of a crowd like that was unbelievable."
Mikkelson, 28, was Team Canada's second skater in the shootout and practically duplicated the slick move by the Raiders' Jason Miller against netminder Charline Labonte to even the count at one goal apiece.
"It's rare that as a righty you get to go down and shoot on a goalie where the blocker is on that side so I knew going down what I was going to do but I didn't know where I was going to shoot it," said Mikkelson, whose goal drew the loudest cheer of the night.
Team Canada went on to win the shootout 2-1, as Labonte stopped Harrison Klein and Ethan Lazaro and Haley Irwin slipped the puck past Dea after rallying from deficits of 2-0 after 40 minutes and 3-1 with 10 minutes remaining in regulation time.
"It was a great effort and a great comeback for us in the third period. We gave up a couple of goals that looking back on we shouldn't have but we challenged ourselves before the third period in the dressing room to step up to the plate to play with more urgency and I really felt like we did that," Mikkelson said. "Those are fun games to win, and it was a great overall job in the third period, but I think moving forward we need to play like that for 60 minutes."
Rebecca Johnston scored on Team Canada's 27th shot of the game, but 15 seconds later Miller's second marker restored the Raiders' two-goal lead.
Less than a minute later, Meghan Agosta-Marciano beat Dea off a face-off from Caroline Ouellette's set-up.
With 6:12 to play, and two Raiders in the penalty box, Agosta-Marciano finished off some nifty passing with a shot from the side.
In the five minute four-on-four overtime frame, Team Canada outshot the Raiders 5-1 but were unable to score despite power play opportunities with Klein in the box for holding with 2:38 to go and Kole Bryks for goaltender interference with 37.8 seconds to play.
"In the third period we were able to get some pucks into the goalie's feet and score a couple of gritty goals there that allowed us to get some momentum going into the overtime," said head coach Dan Church.
Team Canada outshot the Raiders 43-21 overall after both teams had 18 apiece after two periods.
"It was a well played game on both sides of the puck. I was impressed with St. Albert's work ethic. I thought they capitalized on our turnovers and used their speed effectively," Church said.
Team Canada has more than 30 games on tap against AMHL teams in preparation for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the results in regulation time count in the league standings.
"All these guys bring size, strength and speed. Whenever you turn the puck over you're going to pay for it so we have to play the game at a higher pace when we play them than what we would against the majority of the women's teams that we play," Church said. "The physicality too is a big part and even with no checking, the fact that we have to outmuscle some big guys really helps us when we play female international teams."
Team Canada also scheduled 30 exhibitions against AMHL teams leading up the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and on Jan. 10, 2010 the Raiders lost 4-2 to the Olympians in front of 2,300 spectators. According to the event organizers it was the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game at Servus Credit Union Place.
"The last Olympic year we wouldn't have won that gold medal without playing these games against these boys and I think that will be the case this year," said Mikkelson, who didn't dress in Saturday's 6-3 loss to the Leduc Oil Kings to kick off the AMHL series. "They bring speed and physicality and they challenge us game in and game out. They play well positionally, they move the puck well and they're skilled and fast and we need that push."
Team Canada's centralization roster for the Sochi Olympics includes three netminders, nine defencemen and 15 forwards. Mikkelson is among 13 gold medallists from the 2010 Olympics and 22 players from the silver medallists at the 2013 worlds in Ottawa competing for spots on the Olympic roster.
"They still haven't picked the team so I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm just trying to do my best every day to get better as a player and to get better as a teammate as well," Mikkelson said. "Obviously (Sochi) is in the back of my mind but there is a lot of work to be done."
This is Mikkelson's seventh season with the senior national team and she is playing the best hockey of her career.
"I'm a different player, that's for sure, from the Vancouver Olympics. I feel I've learned a lot since then. If anything I think I've grown up a lot. You gain a lot of experience in the three years on this team since then," said the former bantam AAA St. Albert Sabre, who was the first female to play rep hockey in St. Albert in 1997 with the atom AA provincial champion TD Lightning.
Church said Mikkelson is "definitely in the running" to make the Olympic team for Sochi.
"She has matured as a defender coming out of the Vancouver Olympics. She has good offensive skills and has really added some really good defensive abilities so she has a strong two-way game, which is what we ask of all of our defenders to play," he said. "She is a very strong skater too, which allows her to utilize the large ice surface effectively and that's something we need from her on a night to night basis."
A break in Team Canada's busy schedule allowed Mikkelson to spend valuable quality time with her parents, Bill and Betsy, prior to Monday's game.
"I got to go home last night and have a nice home-cooked meal and how many times in the middle of a road trip do you get to go home and sit on your couch and hang out with your parents? It was definitely nice," said the two-time NCAA championship winner with the University of Wisconsin Badgers.