Welcome back to the Esso Cup, Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs.
The midget girl’s national championship hosts spent much of their games on Tuesday and Wednesday playing a step or three behind their competition. On Thursday, they were in danger of dropping their third straight contest and falling to fourth place in the tournament and a date with the top seeded Sudbury Lady Wolves.
But then they woke up.
Chiefs star defenceman Abagael Thiessen, angry with 55 minutes of lacklustre play, took over the game, sparking a two-goal comeback and a 3-2 shootout victory over Manitoba’s Central Plains Capitals on Thursday at the Arena.
Their reward is the No. 3 seed and a showdown with the No. 2 Saskatoon Stars in tonight’s semifinal at 7 p.m.
“I was getting a little frustrated with myself, my play before that was just awful and I’d had enough of it. I wanted to do something and wanted to be the difference for our team,” said Thiessen. “I did my best to make plays to other girls as well … it was just a little bit of frustration and the will to win.”
Carly Wlad scored the tying goal for the Chiefs and Mairead Bast potted the shootout winner. Sarah Murray made 20 saves through overtime and stopped all three shooters in the skills competition.
Emily Upgang and Tamara McVannel scored for the Capitals while Kathleen Kosior made 16 saves through overtime and turned away two of three Chiefs in the shootout.
Chiefs head coach Tom Bast is fully aware they dodged a major bullet.
“We played 56 minutes of uninspired hockey … we were very fortunate,” he said.
“We need to clean up our show for tomorrow because Saskatchewan is going to be tough.”
The game was dominated by defence, but the Capitals managed to stake out a 2-0 lead through 40 minutes, despite being outshot 11-10.
Upgang opened the scoring at 9:01 of the first period as she managed to bang home a spoiled wrap-around attempt by Sheridan Oswald.
The Capitals took a strangle hold at 1:41 of the second as McVannel came down the left wing on a rush and the defenceman’s wrister somehow went through Murray, a rare soft goal for the Calgary native.
The Chiefs looked disinterested at best in the third period, at one point getting outshot 7-0, 15 minutes into the frame.
Thiessen finally ended the drought at 15:07, snapping a wrist shot through a crowd.
It was the next shot, 18 seconds later, that changed the complexion of the game.
Thiessen intercepted a clearing pass at the blue-line, then walked in on Kosior deking once before roofing it over her blocker.
The tally sparked the Chiefs, but the rally was almost cut short as Paige Grenier was called for hooking a couple of shifts later, putting Red Deer down a man.
They killed it off and then tied the game at 18:38 as Wlad finished off a lot of hard work by Skylar Colonna behind the net, wristing a shot from the slot past Kosior.
Thiessen even had a chance to end the game in the final minute but was stopped on another rush
The game went scoreless through overtime, setting up the shootout.
After the initial shooters for both teams were stopped, Mairead Bast beat Kosior with a nifty deke and the goal stood up.
“We’ve been sound defensively all year, but that was two of our worst break downs — we lost coverage in front of our net, it happens,” said Capitals head coach Ferdi Nelissen. “Give Red Deer credit, they never quit either. We accomplished what we wanted, get in the playoff round and tomorrow’s a whole new day.”
Murray was the other big hero on Thursday, after being prepped to wear the goat horns for her second period blunder. She settled herself down and was unbeatable the rest of the way, making several big stops, especially in the third period when the Chiefs were struggling.
“I believe Sarah is our mentally toughest young lady, I wasn’t too worried about Sarah because when she makes a mistake like that … she bears down,” said Tom Bast.
Despite tying the Chiefs with eight points, the Capitals will be bumped down to the No. 4 seed due to Thursday’s loss. They will face the Lady Wolves in the first semifinal today at 3:30 p.m. but the Capitals were the only team to beat Sudbury in the round robin.
“That gives our girls a little bit confidence but we don’t want to be over confident,” said Nelissen. “So far this week we’ve had a chance to win every game we’ve been in, I think we’ve been as good as anybody.”
For the Chiefs it sets up a much more palatable semifinal with the Stars, despite falling 3-2 to the Stars on Wednesday night — they lost 7-2 to Sudbury on Tuesday. They know they still have their work cut out to get to the gold medal game and the opportunity to make some history. The only host team to ever medal at the Esso Cup was in 2009 in Calgary when they finished with bronze.
“They’re going to be fast and physical and they’ve got a few key players we’ve got to shut down,” said Thiessen. “But we’re well aware and we’ve done some video on them over the week and we know what to expect.”
• The Lady Wolves clinched the top seed with a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Thunder, which also clinched a playoff spot for the Chiefs. Karli Shell and Melisa Kingsley scored for the Ontario champions while Danika Ranger made 31 saves for the win.
Alison Barnett scored for Edmonton and Tracie Kikuchi made 19 saves in the loss.
• The Stars finished off the Moncton Rockets with a 7-1 win, paced by Sophie Shirley’s four-point night (two goals, two assists). Nara Elia, Julia Rongve, Danielle Nogier, Courtney Cormack and Jordyn Gerlitz scored for Saskatoon while Karlee Retch stopped 11 of 12 shots for the win.
Lauren Shaw scored Moncton’s only goal while Brianne Waterman allowed seven goals on 36 shots.