Sunday, 27 January 2019

Stars lock up first in SFMAAAHL for fifth straight year

Leschyshyn nets winner in 2-1 OT victory over Rebels

Anna Leschyshyn drives home the OT winner for the Stars on Sunday.
    It seemed fitting that the longest serving members of the Saskatoon Stars played key roles in delivering another first place finish for the team.
    On Sunday at Merlis Belsher Place, captain Grace Shirley scored in overtime and assistant captain Anna Leschyshyn drove home the winning goal on a power play with 53.2 seconds remaining in overtime to power the Stars past the Regina Rebels 2-1 in a stellar Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season game.
    With the win, the Stars improved to 22-1 and clinched first place in the SFMAAAHL regular season standings for a fifth straight year.
Grace Shirley, left, scored her 90th career regular season goal on Sunday.
    Saskatoon earns a bye into a best-of-five semifinal series in the SFMAAAHL playoff due to topping the regular season standings.
    The Rebels continued to sit second in the SFMAAAHL standings as their record moved to 16-5-3.
    “It is awesome,” said Shirley. “Each year we put in the work, and we just try to improve and develop.
    “I think it is definitely working. It is nice to see for sure.”
    “It is important to win against the second place team, because we might have to play against them in playoffs,” said Leschyshyn. “I think just being able to clinch first and have that bye weekend is just an advantage on our half.”
Anna Leschyshyn drives into the offensive zone for the Stars.
    Shirley and Leschyshyn are the only two players to have skated with the Stars in all five of the seasons in their current streak of consecutive first place finishes. Both are in their 17-year-old and final seasons of midget AAA hockey.
    Both saw time with the Stars as 13-year-old underage players in the 2014-15 campaign, which marked the first time the Stars ever topped the SFMAAAHL standings.
    Shirley appeared in three regular season games, five SFMAAAHL playoff games and all seven contests that Stars took part in at the Esso Cup female midget AAA national championship tournament. Leschyshyn saw action in three regular season games and five SFMAAAHL playoff games.
Grace Shirley cuts across the front of the offensive zone for the Stars.
    Both elevated themselves to full time status the next season and took up spots as two of the best players the circuit has ever seen.
    Shirley, who helped Canada recently win gold at the women’s world under-18 hockey championships in Obihiro, Japan, said she still goes through times when it doesn’t seem like that 2014-15 campaign was that long ago.
    “Thinking back on it, it seems like yesterday, but it was a while ago,” said Shirley. “I think it is kind of cool to see how much we’ve kind of grown and developed.
    “It is definitely neat.”
    Leschyshyn can still remember a lot of details from the time she played with the Stars as an associate player call up often splitting time with Shirley.
    “It was crazy,” said Leschyshyn. “Jenna Nash tore her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), so then we rotated back and forth.
Larissa Bohlken controls the puck at the point for the Rebels.
    “I got to play in that finish game where they won. I think it is just something that I will remember forever and just had a really good experience. I think I can bring that into this year’s playoffs.”
    In Sunday’s game against the Rebels, Shirley opened the scoring at the 3:05 mark of the first period. The goal was the 90th career goal of her SFMAAAHL career, and currently, she is only the second player in the history of the league to pull off that feat.
    “I honestly didn’t really know that was the 90th,” said Shirley, who is the fourth all-time leading scorer in the history of the SFMAAAHL posting 90 goals and 64 assists for 154 points in 102 career regular season games. “It is cool, but at the same time, I think I am just trying to play my best hockey right now and work hard.”
Rebels G Payton Schlamp stops Stars D Ashley Messier.
    Still, Sunday’s clash with the Rebels had the feel of a playoff game. The same intensity existed when the two sides met Saturday at Merlis Belsher Place and the Stars pulled out a 4-2 win in that contest.
    In Sunday’s game, Stars netminder Arden Kliewer and Rebels goalie Payton Schlamp were making big save after big save. Kliewer stopped 31 shots, while Schlamp turned away 32 shots.
    Regina broke through on the scoreboard with 3:07 on the scoreboard, while working on the power play. Rebels winger Lauren Focht buried the rebound of a shot taken by Regina defender Brooklyn Stevely to tie things up at 1-1.
Ashley Messier had an assist on the Stars OT winner.
    After playing through a scoreless third period, the Stars caught a break in overtime, when Focht was penalized for hooking.
    On the ensuing power play, Leschyshyn got the puck from offensive defender Ashley Messier, circled across the front the Regina goal and blasted the winner past Schlamp to give the Stars their 2-1 victory. With her overtime winner, Leschyshyn became just the sixth player in the history of the SFMAAAHL to score 70 or more regular season goals.
    “It is really nice,” said Leschyshyn, who is the fifth all-time leading scorer in the history of the SFMAAAHL posting 70 goals and 74 assists for 144 points in 110 career regular season games. “We lost to them in Regina (on Jan. 13), so it is good to get a little bit of revenge and sweep this weekend.
    “I think it is really important that we finish hard and outplayed them at the end there.”
    Stars head coach Greg Slobodzian, who has guided the club to all of their first place finishes, said it has been impressive to see how much of an impact Shirley and Leschyshyn have made to Saskatoon’s success over the run of first place finishes.
Rebels W Lauren Focht, left, battles Stars W Jayda Sachs for the puck.
    “It is something,” said Slobodzian. “It just goes to show you their dedication and commitment, because that is a long time to be around one team.
    “For the fact that they’ve contributed to put us into first place again like that, it is special. Those are two kids that I’m sure really appreciate and enjoy that.”
    The veteran bench boss said the run of five straight first place finishes speaks highly of all the players who have played for the Stars during that period of time.
    “The rewards are nice,” said Slobodzian. “Whenever we are coaching and talking in practice, it is just about getting better and the process.
    “The fact that you get those accolades obviously means the girls are putting in the work. It is definitely rewarding. I’m sure once you sort of sit back and look at it, you will be like, “Holy cow that was a good run.””
The Stars celebrate their OT win over the Rebels on Sunday.
    The Stars return to action on Feb. 7, when they travel to Battleford to take on the Battlefords Sharks at 7:30 p.m. at the Battleford Arena. The Rebels also resume play on Feb. 7, when they host the Notre Dame Hounds at 8 p.m. at the Co-operators Centre in Regina.

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