03/07/2012 06:15 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT

McGill's women's hockey dominance to be tested at CIS championships

EDMONTON - McGill Martlets coach Peter Smith laughs when asked if he feels like an underdog, as his powerhouse women's hockey team enters this year's CIS championships ranked No. 2 behind Wilfrid Laurier.

"No, not really," Smith said. "We're primed and ready to go. We're pretty excited."

Smith's Martlets have more reason than most not to be intimidated when the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships begin Thursday in Edmonton. McGill has won the CIS women's title three of the last four years (2008, 2009, 2011) and has been in the final for five straight years.

In addition to the top-seeded Golden Hawks, another challenge could come from veteran Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser and the third-seeded Calgary Dinos. But Smith says the Martlets are focused on what they need to do and not on the opposition.

"Our team is of a nature they're not going to spend a whole lot of time spectating," he said. "They're going to spend a lot of time playing and working hard and I think we're a difficult team to play against and that's what we'll be when we go out there and play Calgary."

The University of Prince Edward Island Panthers are seeded fourth after their upset win over Mount Allison in the Atlantic Conference title game. The host Alberta Pandas are ranked fifth, followed by the Montreal Carabins.

Wilfrid Laurier won its lone CIS title in 2005. But the Golden Hawks enter with a CIS-best 25-0-1 regular-season record and are 34-1-2 overall against other CIS teams.

That's in large part to the scoring talent of Tammy Frieburger and Laura Brooker, who had 30 points apiece over the 26-game regular season.

"There are six good teams here and everybody is going to have to play three real strong games to be successful," Smith said.

The Martlets are also missing one of their best forwards. Katia Clement-Heydra suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the Quebec semifinals.

"She's a great player and she's certainly a top-six forward for us," says Smith. "We'll miss her but we'll have to forge on."

While the Martlets are backstopped by two-time Olympic gold medallist Charline Labonte, Smith does acknowledge that the team is in a bit of a building phase.

"We have seven first-year players on the team and we have six second-year players on the team, so that's 13 of our 24 players are in their first or second year," he said. "That's a good thing. I think we have a good mix of experience and youth."

Wilfrid Laurier will open play against Montreal. McGill will meet Calgary later Thursday.