Friday, 15 April 2016

Esso Cup = unfinished business for Stars

Saskatoon shoots for gold at female midget AAA nationals

Joelle Fiala (#27) celebrates scoring a goal for the Stars.
    The heartbreak from a year ago was always in the back of the minds of the Saskatoon Stars.
    In the 2014-15 campaign, the Stars enjoyed a season that came out of a dream. They won the championship at the prestigious Mac’s tournament in Calgary for a second time, captured their first Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship and made their first visit to the Esso Cup national championship tournament. At Esso Cup, they fell 2-1 to the host Red Deer Chiefs in a semifinal match after a tiebreaking shootout.
    Saskatoon proceeded to down the Portage la Prairie based Central Plains Capitals 5-1 in the bronze medal match to complete the campaign with a 45-5 overall record.
    For the 14 players that returned from last season, the memory of the semifinal loss still stings. On March 26, the Stars won their second SFMAAAHL title downing the Diamond Energy Wildcats 4-3 in overtime in Swift Current in Game 4 of the best-of-five league championship series. After that win, Stars captain Danielle Nogier said that her team had its sights on making a trip to Weyburn for this year’s Esso Cup.
Mackenna Parker (#11) led the Stars in scoring.
    “It just fuels our fire winning this, and we are just ready to move forward and go back and get some redemption at the Esso Cup,” said Nogier.
    Unlike a year ago, the province of Quebec decided to send a team to this year’s Esso Cup, which meant the Stars had to travel to Shoal Lake, Man., for a best-of-three Western regional series against the Yellowhead Chiefs. On April 2, they swept that series capped by a 3-1 victory in Game 2.
    With a berth now locked up at the Esso Cup in Weyburn, Stars goaltender Emma Johnson echoed her captain’s statement after the series victory over the Chiefs.
    “I think we want a bit of redemption,” said Johnson. “Last year, we didn’t like the way that we went out losing in a shootout, so it is nice to go back and have a chance to set things right.”
Defender Willow Slobodzian is one of the Stars most dynamic players.
    The fact that the Stars players are talking about redemption is a good thing, because it shows they really believed in their hearts they should have won it all.
    In the overall big picture, the semifinal loss didn’t dampen the story that was the 2014-15 campaign. The Stars in 2013-14 were a respectable 13-11-4 and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by Swift Current. No one could have seen the special season that was to follow.
    Going into this season, the Stars lost their two best players, when 16-year-old forwards Sophie Shirley and Nara Elia elected to join the Notre Dame Hounds club that plays of the Junior Women’s Hockey League. Both are a couple of the best midget aged players in Canada. Shirley would also become a member of Canada’s under-18 team, and she went to a camp with the senior national team.
    Had both or even one of those two players returned, there would have been high expectations for the Stars to return to Esso Cup. With Shirley and Elia no longer in the fold, there were question marks regarding the Stars chances to make it that far. The SFMAAAHL had a number of strong teams, so winning a league title was viewed as a difficult task.
Emma Johnson has been a force in goal for the Stars.
    The Stars still put together an impressive 42-9 overall record to date including action at the Mandi Schwartz Memorial Tournament in Wilcox, Sask., and the Futures Hockey Winter Classic tournament in Winnipeg. They topped the SFMAAAHL regular season standings with a 24-4 mark.
    The remaining players stepped up for Saskatoon. Mackenna Parker, who is a 15-year-old sophomore forward, finished second in SFMAAAHL scoring netting 14 goals and 21 assists in 25 games. Grace Shirley, who is Sophie’s younger sister, finished second in team scoring with 18 goals and 14 assists in 28 games.
    Anna Leschyshyn and Joelle Fiala took flight as 14-year-old rookie forwards. Leschyshyn potted 14 goals and 11 assists in 28 games, while Fiala had six goals and 14 assists in 28 games.
    Offensive defender Willow Slobodzian, who turned 16 in January, still controlled things at the back end leading all Stars rearguards in scoring with three goals and 12 assists.
    The rest of the team’s scoring was spread out through the lineup.
Danielle Nogier aims to lead the Stars to a national title.
    In goal, Johnson was stellar in her 16-year-old campaign posting a 13-4 record, a 1.47 goals against average, a .942 save percentage and three shutouts in the regular season. In the post-season, she showed she was still in money goalie form, especially in the sweep at the Western regional in Shoal Lake stopping 52-of-54 shots fired her way. Many of those stops were of the game-saving variety.
    During the season, the Stars had to show perseverance. They suffered setbacks in the SFMAAAHL semifinal and championship rounds, but didn’t allow those losses to derail their run. In the SFMAAAHL title clinching game, they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to pull out a 4-3 victory.
    In the series clinching game at the Western regional, they were down 1-0 after 40 minutes, but found a way to pull out a 3-1 win backed by a 32- save performance by Johnson in goal.
    Saskatoon opens Esso Cup on Sunday taking on a familiar foe in the host Southern Range Gold Wings at 7 p.m. local time at Crescent Point Place in Weyburn. The Stars eliminated the Gold Wings from the SFMAAAHL playoffs in the semifinal round taking a best-of-five series 3-1. Including action in the regular season, post-season and tournament play, the Stars won six of nine matches with the Gold Wings, who were 18-9-1 in the regular season.
    Captain Bailee Bourassa is a huge offensive threat leading the Gold Wings in scoring with 21 goals and nine assists in 26 games. Defender Madison Solie, who stands 6-feet tall, controlled things on the back end and topped all Gold Wings rearguards in scoring with four goals and 16 assists in 25 games.
Grace Shirley was the Stars second leading scorer as a 14-year-old rookie.
    Saskatoon product Chantal Burke is more than capable of stealing a game in net for the Gold Wings posting a 14-8 record, a 1.58 goals against average, a .935 save percentage and four shutouts in the regular season.
    The six-team field at Esso Cup will play each other once in preliminary round play. The top four teams advance to semifinal matches that are slated for Friday, April 22. The bronze and gold medal games are set for Saturday, April 23.
    The Stars are the only team returning to Esso Cup from a year ago. If they maintain their grit, a national championship might come their way.

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