Friday, 18 December 2015

Stars still among Canada's best

Depth of Saskatoon’s female midget AAA squad shines through

Mackenna Parker gets set to drive home a goal for the Stars.
    The Saskatoon Stars are trying to emulate the 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers by showing they still have a great team despite the loss of their superstars.
    Back in the 1989-90 NHL campaign, the Oilers ventured on a surprising run that saw them capture their fifth Stanley Cup title. At the time, that victory was supposed to be unthinkable, because two years early they traded the icon of all hockey icons in Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
    When Gretzky was dealt, many believed a very long time would pass before the Oilers would every again win the Stanley Cup. By winning it all in 1990, the Oilers proved they were still a great team.
    The Stars female midget AAA team entered the 2015-16 campaign with two crippling superstar departures. Gone were forwards Sophie Shirley and Nara Elia who left to play their 16-year-old seasons with the Notre Dame Hounds club that plays out of the Junior Women’s Hockey League, which is made up of prep school teams.
    As 15-year-old sophomores with the Stars in 2014-15, Shirley and Elia were the two most exciting players in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League. Elia topped the league in scoring with 23 goals and 17 assists, and Shirley, who was named the league’s most valuable player, was second in the scoring race with 22 goals and 17 assists.
Anna Leschyshyn cuts hard to the net for a Stars scoring chance.
    Together, they helped the Stars post an unprecedented 25-3 regular season record and a 45-5 mark after including action at the Mac’s tournament, the SFMAAAHL playoffs and the Esso Cup national championship tournament. The Stars also claimed the Mac’s title, the SFMAAAHL championship and bronze at nationals.
    While five players from that team exhausted their eligibility after playing out their 17-year-old seasons, one had to think the Stars would do great things in 2015-16 returning a great core of players. Shirley, who was recently named to Canada’s under-18 team for the women’s worlds in January, and Elia would have been the jewels among the returnees. Their presence alone would have made the Stars huge favourites to hang a few more banners at the Agriplace Arena.
    When Shirley and Elia departed to Wilcox, Sask., one had to wonder if the Stars would fall back to the pack with the rest of the teams of the SFMAAAHL.
    It looked that way for a very short time at first. The Stars opened the regular season falling 3-1 to the Prairie Fire in Melville on Oct. 3. After that setback, they proceeded to win their next 15 straight regular season games.
Defender Willow Slobodzian is arguably the Stars most exciting player.
    When there are big departures, it also creates opportunities for others to step up. That is what has happened in Saskatoon.
    Heading into Saturday’s action, 15-year-old forward Mackenna Parker has netted 10 goals and 11 assists in 13 games to sit in a tie with Chloe Smith of the Swift Current Wildcats for top spot in the SFMAAAHL scoring race. In her sophomore season, Parker has already surpassed her assists and points totals from a season ago.
    Grace Shirley, who is Sophie’s younger sister, sits third in league scoring with 11 goals and six assists as an underage 14-year-old rookie.
    While Parker and Grace Shirley have put up the biggest numbers, the Stars are getting solid production spread out through the rest of their team.
    The Stars most exciting player is arguably Willow Slobodzian, who is a smooth skating, puck moving offensive defender. She was spectacular as a 14-year-old rookie last season quarterbacking the power play netting six goals and 13 assists in 28 games. The Clavet product has been better this year netting two goals and 10 assists, while seemingly seeing a game that is three to four steps ahead of anyone on the ice.
    Emma Johnson is back for her third season between the pipes as a 16-year-old, and she still possesses the ability to steal a game. She has posted a 7-1 record, a 1.12 goals against average, a .955 save percentage and two shutouts.
Emma Johnson has been consistently stellar in goal for the Stars.
    Up and down the lineup, all the Stars veterans are good, and they could get big performances from any of them at any time. Grace Shirley is part of a crop of six rookies, who have all stepped in and made impacts. 
    Included in that group of six is a rookie with a familiar last name in Saskatoon hockey circles in Anna Leschyshyn, whose father and team assistant coach Curtis had a lengthy playing career in the NHL. As a 14-year-old rookie, Anna, who stands 5-foot-10, has eight goals and six assists.
    Grace Shirley and Anna Leschyshyn both suited up with the Stars last season as associate player call ups.
    From Dec. 10 to 13, the Stars were invited down to the Mandi Schwartz Memorial Tournament in Wilcox, Sask., which contained 16 very strong female midget AAA teams and JWHL squads. The Stars opened by blanking the defending JWHL champion Warner Hockey School Warriors 2-0. Saskatoon beat Edmonton’s St. Francis X-treme 5-2 before closing round robin action with a 2-0 setback to the Westman Wildcats from Hartney, Man.
    The Stars split their two consolation playoff games falling 1-0 to Northern Capitals of Prince George, B.C., and slipping past Winnipeg’s Balmoral Hall 3-2 in overtime.
Grace Shirley has lit up the scoreboard for the Stars.
    Saskatoon’s roster is still considered young as captain Danielle Nogier and defenders Hollie Coumont, Danielle Girolami and Rayah DeCorby are the only players in their 17-year-old and final seasons of midget eligibility.
    They will still face some tough competition in their league, which includes traveling to Prince Albert for Saturday and Sunday clashes with the 13-5 A & W Bears. The Stars swept the Bears in last season’s SFMAAAHL best-of-five title series.
    With all that in mind, the Stars keep proving game in and game out they still have a great team without their two superstar talents from a season ago. They might just find a way to win another SFMAAAHL title and maybe make another appearance in the Esso Cup.

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