Next stop: Nationals

The Prince Albert Northern Bears defeated the Westman Wildcats 7-6 on Saturday night to win the West Regional title and a ticket to the national Esso Cup. (Josef Jacobson/Daily Herald)

P.A. Northern Bears defeat Westman Wildcats 7-6 on Saturday night to advance to Esso Cup

The Prince Albert Northern Bears are going to the Esso Cup, Canada’s national women’s midget ‘AAA’ championship.

The Bears overcame a three-goal deficit with 13 minutes remaining in the game to knock off Manitoba’s Westman Wildcats 7-6 at the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday night, winning the best-of-three West Regionals in two-straight games.

“Winning like that is always a thrill. The emotions are all over the place during the whole game and it’s definitely exciting right now,” Bears captain Brooke Hobson said after the match.

“It’s a tough comeback, three goals. We had a good shift there when we were able to score and once we (celebrated) the goal the momentum kind of picked up and we never stopped.”

Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said he’s not sure how his team pulled off the come-from-behind win.

“To be honest, after the second period we told the girls, ‘Let’s do what we’ve been saying all along.’ We kind of got off track a bit during the game, not critically off track but just enough that we weren’t giving ourselves a good enough chance to beat that goalie. And the girls responded,” he said.

“We needed pucks and bodies and sticks in front of the net. All three, not just pucks and I just can’t believe they came back in the way they did… To win it, being down three goals, I just can’t believe it right now.”

Just like in Game 1 it was the Wildcats who came out to an early lead, scoring two goals in less than a minute apart to jump to a 2-0 lead after five minutes. In the latter half of the frame Kate Ball put the Bears on the board and Camryn Amundson tied the game with two minutes to go in the period.

Story Navrot gave P.A. their first lead of the game three minutes into the second period but it didn’t take long for the Wildcats to answer back. Later in the period Westman added another goal to head into Period 3 with a 4-3 lead.

The Wildcats opened the final frame with a quick power play tally and with 13 minutes to go they scored again to gain a 6-3 lead. Just when it looked as if the game was slipping away from P.A., Hobson brought her team right back into it. The veteran defenceman scored twice in four minutes and suddenly the ice seemed to slant in Westman’s direction.

“That goal, something on the bench happened and they just started to believe they could do it … they could just feel it. It was a huge goal,” Willoughby said.

“Our mindset on the bench (was) you just have to think positive in those situations because the game isn’t done yet. It’s a full, 60-minute game,” Hobson added.

“We had one good shift there that kind of just changed the whole game and we never looked back.”

With three minutes to go in the game Abby Soyko tied the score 6-6 and one minute later Brooklyn Anderson would net the game winner.

“It was mayhem, actually, on the bench the last four minutes, especially when we tied it up,” Willoughby said.

“To get the go-ahead goal just made it even crazier on the bench because we knew we had a little bit of wiggle room if they were to score. Just a great two games to coach the girls. What a great experience for them.”

For Hobson, who is in her graduating year, the win came in her final Midget ‘AAA’ game at the Art Hauser Centre.

“Obviously, I wish I could play here more but going to Esso is going to be the time of our lives. A once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.

The last time the Bears and Wildcats met at the West Regional was in 2009 when Westman swept the series and went on to win the inaugural Esso Cup. This year the Bears are heading into the tournament with an undefeated record that stretches back to Jan. 29.

“I’m not taking any credit for this at all, it’s all the girls’ determination,” Willoughby said.

“Their season-long goal is to go to Morden and nobody was stopping them. What a group of girls. It was a pleasure to have coached them.”

The Esso Cup will be held at the Huron Window Corporation Arena in Morden, Man. from April 23 to 29. The Bears will face the host team Pembina Valley Hawks as well as the top teams from the Pacific, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic regions.