Prince Albert Northern Bears playoff preview

Taylor Leitch is playing in her fourth and final season with the Prince Albert Northern Bears. -Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

“Every little mistake can cost us the series.”

That was the message from Prince Albert Northern Bears head coach Steve Young during a practice on Wednesday night. The Bears spent time working on numerous aspects of their game, ranging from powerplays and penalty kills to odd man rushes and five on five play.

Prince Albert kicks off their first round playoff series with the Saskatoon Stars on Saturday afternoon at Merlis Belsher Place. Young believes their play at even strength, one of the things they focused on in practice, will be an important factor heading in.

“We believe that five on five hockey is going to be key for us,” Young said. “For our girls, it’s important that they keep doing some of the things that they’ve been doing all year. Now we have to make sure that when they do those things, it’s exact. The team that makes the most mistakes will probably end up losing the series.”

After ending the regular season with a 9-2 win over the Battlefords Sharks, the team is heading into their first round matchup with a bit of momentum. However, Young knows that Saskatoon is a different team, and their approach will have to be different as well.

“You learn from every team you play,” he said. “Saskatoon is a team that can explode offensively, and we have to make sure that we take that away from them. From what I’ve seen so far, special teams can help and hurt us, so it’s important that we play strong at even strength.”

One of just two players on the team that has playoff experience at the U18 AAA level, Taylor Leitch has worked her way through the ranks of the Bears organization. Leitch, as well as current Bears captain Paige Dawson, was a rookie of the 2018-19 team that fell in four games to the Notre Dame Hounds in their first round series.

Now one of just 16 fourth year players in the league, Leitch is in a position where she can share some of her playoff experience with the rest of the team. She says it’s important that they focus on the task at hand as soon as they arrive to the rink.

“I think it starts right when we get to the dressing room,” she said. “The preparation for these game is so important, and it helps us get ready for when the puck drops. The playoffs are super fun, but it’s hard. There’s a lot of games and a lot of ice time, so it’s hard mentally and physically, but the journey is what makes it fun.”

“(The veterans) are really working together to get the team ready. We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but we’ve pushed through it to get to where we’re at now. We feel like we’ve been getting better and better, and we’re ready to bring it to the next level for the playoffs.”

Rookie forward Tristyn Endicott and second year forward Calla Kampen also chimed in on their upcoming series with the Stars. They said it will be important to stay disciplined, while also playing a fast paced game.

“We have to come out and play hard,” Endicott said. “It’s going to take a lot of work ethic, and we can’t give up any dangerous chances. We have to start strong and play how we know we can play.”

Prince Albert Northern Bears rookie Tristyn Endicott is coming off of a three point performance two games ago as part of a 5-1 win over the Battlefords Sharks on Feb. 26. –Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

“Working hard every practice has been getting us ready,” Kampen added. “When we get on the ice, we’re working our hardest and I think that’s how we’re preparing ourselves. We definitely have to have a good start, and be disciplined.”

2021-22 head to head

The Bears and Stars met five times in the regular season, with four of those contests decided by just one goal, two of which went to overtime. Saskatoon took the season series, winning three of five games. With their upcoming playoff series against the Stars being a best of five, the Bears will obviously be hoping for a different outcome.

Their first meeting of the season on Oct. 17 was a 3-2 win for the Stars. It was the final game of a four game road trip to start the season for Prince Albert, who began the 2021-22 campaign with an 0-4-0-0 record as a result. Sophia Zuck and Taylor Leitch both had a goal and an assist in the contest.

On Dec. 16, the Stars came away with another 3-2 win, this time at the Art Hauser Centre. Saskatoon held a 3-0 lead in the third period, but the Bears clawed their way back into the game, scoring twice in the final seven minutes of regulation. The late push wasn’t enough, as the Stars held on for the one goal victory.

Two days later, Prince Albert picked up a shootout win in Saskatoon in their final game before the holiday break. Julia Cey played hero in the contest, scoring twice in regulation, and also potting a goal in the shootout that stood up as the winner. For the third straight game, 3-2 was the end result, but the Bears came out on top for the first time.

Their next meeting came on Jan. 20 in Prince Albert, and for the first time, the game didn’t finish with a 3-2 final. In fact, it finished as a 6-2 Bears win, which put the brakes on a three game losing streak. After dropping three straight 2-1 finals to the Swift Current Wildcats, Prince Albert’s offense exploded against Saskatoon. Six different skaters found the goal sheet as the Bears evened the season series at two games apiece.

The last and most recent meeting of the regular season on Feb. 22 was another high scoring affair, and another game that needed extra time to determine a victor. Prince Albert came back from down 2-0 and 3-1 to take a 4-3 lead in the third period, but the Stars tied the game with just over three minutes left in regulation. Zuck scored twice for the Bears in regulation, while Avery Bairos tallied a pair of goals for Saskatoon through 60 minutes. Bairos sealed the deal in overtime, scoring her hat trick goal with 20 seconds left, as the Stars came back to win in dramatic fashion by a 5-4 final.

If the regular season series was any indication of what’s in store for the upcoming first round series between the Prince Albert Northern Bears and Saskatoon Stars, nail clippers and popcorn will be a necessity this weekend.

It all kicks off on Saturday afternoon in Saskatoon for game one. Puck drop is at 2 p.m.

The two teams will travel to Prince Albert on Sunday night for game two. Puck drop for Sunday night’s contest is 6:30 p.m.