Bears eye deep playoff push

Prince Albert Northern Bears forward Kate Ball (21) led her team this year in assists, with 18. She's one of 14 Bears players who returns from last year's provincial championship team. -- Evan Radford/Daily Herald

Coming off one of their best regular seasons in team history, the Prince Albert Northern Bears have their sights set firmly on the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA postseason.

The team finished in second place of the eight-team provincial hockey league. Through 28 games, the Bears notched 21 regulation time wins and one overtime win, while losing six times – five games in regulation time and one game in overtime.

With their second-place finish, the club will play the seventh-place Battlefords Sharks (seven wins and 21 losses, all in regulation time) in the first round of playoffs, which start on Monday, Feb. 26.

In what will likely be a boon for the team as it looks to advance through the postseason, the Bears have 14 players on their squad who were part of last year’s provincial championship team.

That’s an important factor, according to Bears captain Hannah Koroll, especially given the different character playoff games tend to take on.

“The intensity in those games is so much higher, and anything can happen,” she said.

The 17-year-old defenceman was part of last year’s team that, after winning provincials, found success at western Canada regionals and earned a berth in the national-level Esso Cup.

She said that getting away from the pressure to repeat as provincial champions means forgetting about last season and any sort of big-picture assessment.

“Just focus on what’s going on at the moment,” she said, explaining that the team will be taking a game-by-game approach as it enters the postseason.

The team captain also underscored the passion and drive that this year’s rookies bring to each game. “They try so hard and want to win so badly.”

That group includes Kailee Peppler, Rhea Peterson, Paris Oleksyn, Haley Kicia and Lexi Beuker.

Bears head coach Jeff Willoughy did acknowledge the added pressure that comes with the expectation of a repeat championship, especially when the team is comprised of 70 per cent of the players it had last year.

“We just don’t want that to happen (players getting overwhelmed by pressure) … you’ve had a good season, coming off another season last year; you still have to prove yourself,” he said.

“There are seven teams left in the playoffs; you have to prove it again. It’s tough to repeat in any sport, in any league. And it’s always a challenge.”

He and Koroll both said that lower-seeded teams and teams who didn’t go far in the postseason last year may have a particular advantage.

“If you’re coming in with no pretence of anything, you got nothing to lose. But when you’re trying to defend a title it’s very difficult,” the Bears coach said.

That’s why, according to Koroll, adopting a game-by-game and minute-by-minute mentality is key in the postseason. “We can’t take any team lightly, and we can never get too far ahead of ourselves.”

The Bears enter the postseason set to play the Sharks in the first round for the best-of-five games series. (A full schedule of the Bears’ first-round playoff games is lower down in this article).

Of the league’s 8 teams, the top seven make the playoffs. The highest-seeded team, the Saskatoon Stars, earns a first-round bye. The last place Weyburn Gold Wings did not qualify for playoffs.

The top seeded teams will play the lowest-seeded teams in the first round of play. Every series from round 1 to the league finals is a best-of-five series.

The following list shows the first round of games in this year’s SFMAAAHL playoffs.

Round 1:

  • (2) Prince Albert Northern Bears vs. (7) Battlefords Sharks
  • (3) Notre Dame Hounds vs. (6) Melville Prairie Fire
  • (4) Regina Rebels vs. (5) Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats

Bears’ round 1 playoff schedule:

  • Game 1 – Feb. 26, 7 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre.
  • Game 2 – Feb. 28, 6 p.m. at Battleford Arena (off Highway 4 in Battleford)
  • Game 3 – March 2, 7 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre.
  • Game 4 (if necessary) – to be determined
  • Game 5 (if necessary) – March 5, 7 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre

Bears by the numbers in 2017-18:

  • Points leader – Abby Soyko (38); finished 8th overall in the league
  • Goals leader – Abby Soyko (21); finished 7th overall in the league
  • Assists leader – Kate Ball (18); tied for 9th in the league with five other players.
  • Points per game leader – Abby Soyko (1.4); tied for 6th in the league with four other players.
  • By committee – Every Bears skater except for Colby Donald and goalies Ryan Fontaine and Lexi Beuker scored at least one goal this year; every Bears skater except for the two goalies had at least two points this year; 12 of 18 Bears skaters scored 10 or more points this year, including rookie Kailee Peppler.
  • Wins – Fontaine had 13 wins on 17 games played, while Beuker earned nine wins on 12 games played
  • Fontaine led the league in wins and goals against average (1.70); she was second overall in save percentage (0.925), behind Notre Dame’s Kaitlyn Ross.
  • Beuker, also a rookie, finished the year fifth overall in save percentage (0.909) and sixth overall in goals against average (2.13).
  • Weyburn’s Amara Lewendon faced the most shots this year among all goalies. Through 19 games played (and a Feb. 18 game in which she was called in to relieve her backup in the third period), she faced 688 shots, earning a 0.828 save percentage; that’s an average of 36.21 shots faced per game