The Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs are hitting their stride at the right time.
After losing the first game of their Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League best-of-five playoff series to the Rocky Mountain Raiders, they won the next three games, including 3-2 on Saturday in DeWinton, to advance to the league final tournament.
The tournament runs from Thursday to Sunday in Spruce Grove. The league champion will then play the B.C. champion for the right to go to the Esso Cup, the female midget national champion. Unless the Chiefs win it all this weekend, as Esso Cup hosts they have a bye into the April 19-25 tournament and the B.C. winner will advance straight to Red Deer.
“They’re starting to learn how to win,” said Chiefs head coach Tom Bast. “Are we winning with our ‘A’ game all the time? Not really, but we’re finding ways to win and we’re finding ways of getting things done.”
Erika Marshall scored twice for the Chiefs in their Game 4 win over the Raiders while Kirsten Baumgardt also scored and Sarah Murray made 31 saves.
Despite already having spot in the Esso Cup locked up, getting to the league final was an important step for the Chiefs.
Championship hosts always want to earn their way into the tournament and not have to rely on the bye to get in. Also, it is supplying them with one more weekend of top level hockey to tune up for the Esso Cup. They have a trip to the Warner Hockey Academy for a couple of exhibition games, but that competition will be no comparison to what they are preparing to see.
“If we would have lost the series, we would have been four weeks before we played in the Esso Cup and playing in exhibition games is not the same thing as playing a playoff game or playing a league game,” said Bast.
The biggest improvement for the Chiefs over the last few months has been the development of their special teams with three reliable penalty kill units and two productive lines on the power play. Special teams always play a pivotal role in the post-season.
“All of the girls have their roles and they’re buying into their roles and I think that’s what is making us successful,” said Bast.
The Chiefs (19-8-0-5) will have their work cut out for them in Spruce Grove with four of the top teams in Alberta serving as their competition: the Calgary Fire (23-4-3-2), Edmonton Thunder (17-9-3-3), Spruce Grove Saints (15-14-1-2) and Sherwood Park Fury (17-12-1-2).
The Chiefs open up against the Fire on Thursday at 3:30 p.m., and will be banking on former Calgary goalie Murray in net to give them a fighting chance, though he adds they will likely be going with Bailey Knapp in their second game on Friday against the Saints at 9:15 a.m.
“Goaltending is always a key factor in women’s hockey and I think we’re pretty comfortable with our goaltending duo,” said Bast.
The tournament is a round-robin format with the top team getting a bye to Sunday’s final at 3:15 p.m.. The second and third place teams will advance to a semifinal on Sunday at 9 a.m.
“It’s the team that works hard and gets the puck to the net is usually the one that’s going to win,” said Bast. “Getting off to a good start, it’s all about momentum. You create that good momentum for your team and you keep riding that wave.”