The Saskatoon Stars are not only the youngest team in the Esso Cup, they also appear to be genuine contenders.
If not, they’re definitely in the neighbourhood, as they displayed Wednesday night during a 3-2 win over the host Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs in a Canadian midget AAA girls hockey championship tournament game at the Arena.
The Stars, outshot 12-8, were probably fortunate to get out of the opening period down by just a single goal. But the Saskatchewan champs cranked it up in the middle frame to pull even at 2-2, then potted the winner in the third period.
Kalista Senger fired a point shot past Chiefs netminder Sarah Murray at 8:34 of the final stanza and the goal held up despite a late push from the hosts. The Chiefs, however, couldn’t move the puck out of their own zone in the final minute and never had a chance to pull Murray for an extra attacker.
“It was textbook. You don’t see that too often by a young bunch of girls like that,” said Stars head coach Greg Slobodzian, in reference to his club’s dogged forecheck in the dying seconds.
“What sort of gave us success at the end of the game was what hurt us at the beginning, in regards to the girls listening to the fine points of what the coaches had to say. We weren’t quite moving the puck the way we wanted to and at the end of the game they did exactly what we wanted and they (Chiefs) had no answer for us.”
The Stars improved to 3-1 with the victory and moved into a first-place tie with the Sudbury Lady Wolves, who suffered their first loss of the tournament earlier in the day, falling 4-1 to the Manitoba champion Central Plains Capitals, who occupy third place with two wins, one regulation-time loss and an overtime setback.
So far, so good for a team that boasts a roster consisting of five bantam-aged players and another — forward Grace Shirley — who was born in 2001. A lack of experience has clearly presented no problems for the Stars.
“Our vets have been outstanding while bringing that young team under them along during the season,” said Slobodzian.
“All year they’ve bought in to what we’ve been selling and it’s obviously paid off.”
Kaitlan Linnell, from a power-play scramble, and Carley Wlad, who cashed her own rebound while short-handed, scored first-period goals for the Chiefs, with a Saskatoon marker courtesy of Grace Shirley sandwiched in between.
The Stars pulled even when Sophie Shirley went hard to the net and notched a power-play goal at 6:31 of the second period, setting the stage for Senger’s third-period winner.
The negative result left the Chiefs with a break-even 2-2 slate with one round-robin contest remaining, tonight at 7 p.m. versus Central Plains. Red Deer will qualify for the semifinals if the Edmonton Thunder, who are a point back, drop their final game versus Sudbury today at noon.
If the Thunder pull off the upset, the Chiefs will require a win over Central Plains, but either way . . .
“We control our own fate,” said Red Deer head coach Tom Bast, who watched his club suffer its second consecutive loss after opening the tournament with back-to-back wins.
“We played hard today,” said Bast. “I was very proud of our girls. The puck wasn’t bouncing our way in some important areas of the ice, but we’ll be back. We’ll rest tonight and refuel and get back to work. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Like I’ve been telling the girls, it’s a long week.”
The Chiefs, outshot 16-6 in the second period and 33-24 overall, were foiled on a handful of excellent scoring chances with about five minutes remaining in the game as Saskatoon netminder Karlee Fetch stood taller than her five-foot-two frame.
“We had some great chances, but the thing is we have to bury them. We have to understand how to score when we need to score,” said Bast. “But that’s been an issue with us this year, scoring at key times.
“I was pleased with the girls and their effort, at least we were creating scoring opportunities. These are all good teams here. We just have to find a way to win.”
Bast insisted the mood in the Chiefs dressing room remains upbeat.
“Of course they’re sad right now because we lost,” said the coach. “But the mood is good. We have to be positive, we have to go back to work tomorrow. We need to battle. We know it’s going to be hard but I feel we can have success if we give the same effort as we did today.”
Chiefs assistant captain Abagael Thiessen admitted there’s a slight sense of frustration in that the club has scored just four goals in the last two games, but agreed with Bast that there’s not even a remote sign of surrender.
“I think we’re still really excited, we’re focusing on the positives,” she insisted. “It’s a good atmosphere. We haven’t really gotten down on each other and we’re excited about tomorrow.”
• The Capitals got two goals from Mekaela Fisher and singles from Emily Upgang and Sheridan Oswald in their victory over Sudbury, whose lone goal came off the stick of Karli Shell.
Laura Taraschuk made 20 saves for Central Plains, while Danika Lefrancois stopped 29 shots at the other end.
In Wednesday’s other contest, the Thunder downed the winless Moncton Rockets 4-1 as Kimberley Huisman, Alison Barnett, Alexandra Poznikoff and Raylene Emerson each contributed a goal. Faith Steeves scored for Moncton, which got a 49-save performance from Brianne Waterman.
• The semifinals are scheduled for 3:30 p.m and 7 p.m. Friday and will be followed by the bronze-medal game Saturday at noon and the championship game at 3:30 p.m.