Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Northern Bears should let it loose and roll at Esso Cup

Prince Albert enters nationals with tonnes of pluses to lean on

The Prince Albert Northern Bears should play with no fear at Esso Cup.
    When the Prince Albert Northern Bears hit the ice at Esso Cup, they should skate like they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
    The Bears open play at the female midget AAA national championship tournament on Morden, Man., on Sunday, when they take on the host Pembina Valley Hawks, who are also the Manitoba champs.
    Prince Albert has been in a holding pattern since sweeping a best-of-three Western regional playdown series at the Art Hauser Centre against the Hartney, Man., based Westman Wildcats on April 1. The Bears are heading to the national championship tournament for the first time in team history.
    Pembina Valley clinched the Manitoba title on March 19, and they since participated in a pair of exhibition games against a pair of junior women’s teams that are based out of Winnipeg. The last of those was held on April 14 in Morden, Man., where the Hawks thumped the Manitoba Blizzard 6-0.
    The Esso Cup contains a field of six teams from across Canada. They play each other in a round robin, and the top four teams advance to the playoff round. The semifinals are held on April 28, and the bronze and gold medal games are both slated for April 29.
Brooke Hobson is the Bears fearless leader.
    At last year’s Esso Cup in Weyburn, the Brantford Ice Cats romped over the Express du Richelieu 10-3 in the championship final.
    All the teams at Esso Cup are good, and the squads at this year’s event won’t know how they stack up against each other until they start playing each other.
    Last year, the field was even as all the teams that made the playoff round sported 3-2 records. Out of the 19 games played over seven days, nine were decided by one goal and six had two-goal spreads. In the preliminary round, the Express downed the Ice Cats 5-4 in a contest that required a tiebreaking shootout.
    When the Bears take the ice at this year’s Esso Cup in Morden, Man., they should just go out and rock and roll with no fear. Prince Albert built a 22-6 regular season record and a perfect 11-0 in the post-season by flying at opponents with four lines that all have speed. They also have a solid group of defenders and two goalies that can help transition play up ice or shut things down in the defensive zone.
    The Bears, who are riding a 15-game winning streak, have many huge positives that are on their side. The biggest intangible is their culture is really good.
    When you see the players interact with each other at practice, in games or away from the rink, the family feeling is strong. You can tell the players care for each other a lot, and that aspect alone will win you a lot of games.
    Head coach Jeff Willoughby and his staff done a tremendous job in creating an atmosphere that allows their players to succeed.
    The Bears players are all good and have all contributed to their team’s success. All have grown immensely over the 2016-17 season.
Abby Soyko topped the Bears in regular season scoring.
    In captain Brooke Hobson, you might not find a better leader anywhere. The 17-year-old defender, who was a member of Canada’s under-18 national team, has the maturity of an adult. When you talk to her, you don’t realize you are talking to someone who is 17.
    She also has the right type of confidence in herself and her team. On top of all that, Hobson, who had 11 goals and nine assists in 24 regular season games, is invested emotionally in the Bears program having played five full seasons with the team. The skilled rearguard will move on to play with Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., in the fall.
    The forward line of Kate Ball, Camryn Amundson and Jasper Desmarais have a chemistry that is second to none. Ball finished second in team scoring with 15 goals and 15 assists in 28 regular season games, Amundson was third in team scoring with 13 goals and 14 assists in 27 regular season games, while Desmarais was fourth with nine goals and 15 assists in 26 regular season games.
    Prince Albert product Abby Soyko, who is a 15-year-old forward, topped the Bears in scoring with 18 goals and 13 assists.
Centre Kate Ball piled up the points on a high-scoring line.
    While opponents will focus on shutting down the Bears visible top scorers, you never know when anyone else on the roster could hurt you. The best example of that is underage 14-year-old forward Brooklyn Anderson. The Shellbrook product had four goals and nine assists in 27 regular season games, but she came through with points at key times in the post-season.
    In the Western regional series clinching game, Anderson tipped home a point shot from defender Jordan Ashe with two minutes to play to break a 6-6 tie and deliver the Bears to a 7-6 victory over the Wildcats. The Bears were down 6-3 in that contest in the third period before they rallied back for victory.
    The Bears also have a great double punch in goal with Brooklyn Elek and Ryan Fontaine, and both have rotated starts throughout the regular season and post-season. As teams that make the playoff round will play seven games in seven days at Esso Cup, it is huge asset to have to goalies that can carry the load and rotate starts through the event.
The Bears hope to celebrate a number goals at Esso Cup.
    When the run ends, the Bears will graduate Hobson and Elek along with forwards Ireland South and Sierra Parenteau. A national championship win would create the ultimate high to leave on.
    With that said, you never know how strong the rest of the field could be.
    Still, the Bears have had a highlight filled season. Sweeping away the Saskatoon Stars in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series was one highlight, because the Stars had won the SFMAAAHL title the two previous seasons.
    The other highlights were playing in front of an estimated crowd of 1,000 in Prince Albert in their Game 1 win at the Western regional and an estimated crowd of 1,200 in their Game 2 win. Those attendance figures are almost unheard of for female midget AAA hockey.
    They bested the crowds of just under 800 that attended each of the three games of the 2014 Canada West women’s hockey final at the Rutherford Rink, when the University of Saskatchewan Huskies downed the U of Regina Cougars 2-1 in a best-of-three set.
    The Bears have already accomplished a lot, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did go all the way.

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