Bears and Stars to square off in playoffs

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald The last major event at the Art Hauser Centre was on March 8 when the Saskatoon Stars went up against the Prince Albert Northern Bears.

Esso Cup hosts entering post-season on a four-game win streak

Since 2015, the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League’s Fedoruk Cup trophy has gone to either the Prince Albert Northern Bears or the Saskatoon Stars.

The two sides are now preparing to face each other in a best-of-three quarter-final series, which will get underway at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Art Hauser Centre.

The second game will be held the following day at Merlis Belsher Place in Saskatoon at 5:15 p.m., while a third contest, if needed, would take place in Prince Albert on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

“We love playing against the Stars,” Bears forward Paris Oleksyn said. “They like to compete and they are always wanting to score goals, which makes us want to score more goals than them and also compete at a higher level.”

Although the Bears earned the fourth overall seed for the post-season with a weekend sweep of the Stars, they very nearly clinched the third spot with a regulation win on Sunday.

However, Bridget Rezansoff tied things up with 53.7 seconds to go and a bid to move back ahead with an extra attacker didn’t work for the hosts.

As a result, the 15-13-2 Bears ended up tied on points with the 15-13-2 Notre Dame Hounds, but the Hounds earned the third seed as a result of sweeping the season series over the 2020 Esso Cup hosts.

The Bears were able to end the afternoon on a high note, however, as Brooklyn Anderson scored on a wrap-around play in the extra frame to give her team a 2-1 win and their fourth straight triumph heading into the playoffs.

“She has similar chances to score at the end of regulation so it was nice to see her fight through those challenges to get one at the end,” Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said.

“It wasn’t quite the result that we wanted today, but we still won the game. We’re pretty happy to be going into the playoffs with four straight victories.”

While the Bears celebrated with their captain, the Stars were fuming over the fact that the officials elected to let the play continue after Anderson flung away Rezansoff’s stick during a battle in front of the net.

Although she was disappointed with how the game ended, Stars head coach Robin Ulrich was pleased with how her team bounced back from a 3-1 loss a night earlier.

“We didn’t play our best game on Saturday and we were a little slow getting started today,” Ulrich said. “However, I really liked how we played in the second and third periods, especially with our big push at the end.

“Obviously it was a tough ending for us, but I’m really happy with how the girls finished the game off.”

Kaitlyn Cadrain made 34 saves for the Stars, while Dani Day turned aside 22 shots for the Bears.

Oleksyn, who had the other offensive contribution for the hosts on Sunday, also found the back of the net in Saturday’s 3-1 contest as she finished the campaign as the team leader in points with 26.

“My linemates Jasper (Desmarais) and Lauren (Willoughby) have really helped me out a lot in getting those goals,” Olekeyn said.

“Our team chemistry has really started to build lately and I think we’ve become a lot better at capitalizing on our chances and at finding each other in the slot.”

Kailey Ledoux led the way for the Bears with a goal and an assist, while Paige Dawson also scored and Janae Neufeld stopped 21 shots.

The 12-14-4 Stars, who ended the regular season with three straight losses, got their lone goal from Sydney Mercier and received a 40-save showing from Kaitlyn Cadrain.

Although the Bears won all five meetings in the regular season against the Stars and outscored the two-time defending league champions by a 16-7 margin, Willoughby’s message to his team was to treat their upcoming matchup with a clean slate.

“Everyone’s starting over now and we can’t take that record into the playoffs,” Willoughby said. “We were able to finish the job against them in the regular season, but we need to make sure that we are the better team starting on Saturday.”

Another major storyline for the opening round is the fact it’s now a best-of-three affair instead of the best-of-five matchups that were the norm in previous campaigns.

“It’s now even more crucial to win that first game,” Ulrich said. “It’s not like you’re out of the series if you lose, but getting that win gives you a little bit of an extra jump in momentum.

“There’s no time to mess around now with it only being three games.”

Ledoux had two goals and four assists to lead the Bears in scoring during the season series, while Desmarais and Oleksyn had five points each.

Day posted a 3-0 record with a 1.66 goals against average and Neufeld had a 2-0 mark with a 1.00 goals against average.

Mercier paced the Stars offensively with three goals and an assist, while Makena Kushniruk and Rezansoff had three points each.

Kliewer went 0-3 with a 2.51 goals against average during the season series and Cadarin was 0-2 with a 4.50 goals against average.

The other two quarter-final matchups, which will also start on Saturday, will see the second seeded Swift Current Wildcats face the seventh ranked Weyburn Gold Wings and the third seeded Hounds go up against the sixth ranked Battlefords Sharks.

The regular season champion Regina Rebels have earned a bye to the semifinals.