Saturday, 26 March 2016

Shirley shines in OT, Stars repeat as Saskatchewan champs

The Saskatoon Stars celebrate back-to-back SFMAAAHL title wins.
    SWIFT CURRENT – At age 14, Grace Shirley showed she is ready for the big moments.
    On Saturday night, the skilled forward blasted home a goal at the 4:08 mark of overtime to deliver the Saskatoon Stars to a 4-3 victory over the host Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats in Game 4 of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series. The win at the Fairview Arena in Swift Current allowed the Stars to take the best-of-five series 3-1 and capture the Fedoruk Cup for a second straight year.
    “It was really overwhelming,” said Shirley after scoring her OT winner. “It was crazy. I was just kind of happy to see it squeak in there at the last point there.
    “It couldn’t be better with these girls by my side. I have so much respect for them. We’ve build such good friendships, so it is just amazing.”
    For a while, it looked like the series was going to head back to Saskatoon for a series deciding Game 5 on Sunday. The Wildcats led 3-1 with 4:39 to play in the second period, before the Stars cued the comeback.
Grace Shirley blasts home the OT winner for the Stars.
    Just 58 seconds after the Wildcats went up 3-1, Stars defender Rayah DeCorby fired home an accurate long distance off-speed shot to cut the gap to 3-2.
    Saskatoon tied the contest up at 3-3 at the 9:03 mark of the third, when Anna Leschyshyn potted home the rebound from a shot taken by linemate Julia Rongve.
    “To be able to come back after that game and come out on the right end of it, I am so proud of the girls,” said Stars head coach Greg Slobodzian. “They worked so hard, and then to go down like that in a game when you’re outplaying them, that is tough.
    “They didn’t change anything. They didn’t mope. They didn’t pout. They just as we say believed in the process and came through in the end.”
    The Stars took a 1-0 with 38.81 seconds to play in the first, when 14-year-old rookie forward Joelle Fiala converted a tick-tack-toe passing play from linemates Grace Shirley and Abby Shirley. Saskatoon had Swift Current pinned in its own end during the opening 20 minutes holding a 13-1 edge in shots on goal.
Stars captain Danielle Nogier is stopped by Wildcats goalie Jacey Book.
    The game’s momentum turned in the second, when the Wildcats surged ahead on three straight markers. First, Josee Casavant scored from in close, and just 1:42 later, Merissa Zerr slipped a beauty pass across the face of the Saskatoon goal to allow linemate Janessa Fournier to pop in a tally to give the hosts a 2-1 edge.
    Right-winger Taylor Kirwan tipped home a power-play goal with 4:39 to play in the second to give the Wildcats a 3-1 edge.
    Saskatoon proceeded to rally back. Stars captain Danielle Nogier said taking the series clincher in come-from-behind style was sweet.
    “That felt extra special, because for a minute there, we were starting to question,” said Nogier. “We pulled together. We didn’t have any doubt, and it feels so good.”
    Emma Johnson made 17 stops to pick up the win in goal for the Stars. Jasey Book turned away 35 shots to take the loss in net for the Wildcats.
Janessa Fournier, left, celebrates scoring for the Wildcats.
    The Stars topped the SFMAAAHL regular season standings with a 24-4 record, while the Wildcats were second in the eight-team circuit with a 19-6-3 mark. Every game in the SFMAAAHL championship series was decided by one goal.
    Nogier, who will join the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team next season, was proud her team was able to repeat as SFMAAAHL champs.
    “I can’t explain it,” said Nogier, who was an assistant captain last season. “Words can’t describe how amazing this feeling is just winning this with my girls, my family.
    “This was so special just knowing that I helped lead the girls to this victory, and they worked their butts off. I don’t take credit for anything they did.”
    Entering the season, the Stars were not considered a sure thing, when it came to repeating as champions. In the off-season, they lost superstar forwards Sophie Shirley, who is Grace’s older sister, and Nara Elia to the Notre Dame Hounds Junior Women’s Hockey League team. Both Sophie Shirley and Elia were eligible to return to the Stars as 16-year-olds.
Anna Leschyshyn breaks into the offensive zone for the Stars.
    When the Stars claimed their first SFMAAAHL title in 2014-15, they had one of those rare special campaigns. They posted a 45-5 overall record, which included a 25-3 mark in the regular season. Saskatoon also won the prestigious Mac’s tournament in Calgary and a bronze medal at the Esso Cup national championship tournament.
    In 2015-16, the Stars had to prove they were still a good team without their two superstars, but they were viewed a beatable club.
    Slobodzian, who was head coach for both SFMAAAHL title wins, didn’t want to rate one as being more special than the other, but he noted they were enjoyable for their own unique reasons.
    “They’re different,” said Slobodzian. “The first one obviously was special.
    “This one, I don’t think a lot of people in the province thought we would do it this year. We built a new identity, and we believed in the new identity and it just worked. Because of that, it has a real special feeling to it.”
    The Stars advance to a best-of-three regional final against the Manitoba champion Yellowhead Chiefs, who are based out of Shoal Lake. All three of those contests will be played in Shoal Lake from April 1-3.
    The winner of the regional series qualifies for the Esso Cup national championship tournament, which runs April 17 to 23 in Weyburn.

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