The ultimate high for the St. Albert Slash is finishing No. 1 in Canada.
“Top of Alberta is amazing but to be the top of the top is even better,” said centre Alli Reich of the Esso Cup midget AAA female champions the last two years. “When you’re the top of the country it’s a way different feeling.”
A landmark national three-peat is only a slap shot away for the 32-3-1 Slash as the reigning Final Frozen Four provincial winners return to the Esso Cup as the Pacific Region champions.
“It’s very important definitely for us and the city of St. Albert. We want to be that team to leave our legacy and be known as national champions three years in a row and hopefully we can go and do that,” said captain Madison Willan.
The 31st goal in 36 games for the Alberta Female Hockey League’s most valuable player was Saturday’s empty-netter with 38 seconds remaining to complete the best-of-three sweep with the 3-0 decision against the Greater Vancouver Comets in the Pacific Region national qualifier.
“It was relieving, that’s for sure. As soon as that one went in I knew we were going and it was just a really good feeling,” said Willan of booking the team’s spot at the 11th annual Esso Cup, April 21 to 27 at Sudbury, Ont.
“It’s a really special moment right now. A lot of emotions,” Willan said as the Slash celebrated the series clincher with exuberance at Akinsdale Arena. “I’m super excited for all the girls, the ones who haven’t been there and the ones who have been there. It’s going to be a really great experience.”
Willan, Isabelle Lajoie, Makenna Schuttler, netminder Brianna Sank and defenceman Taylor Anker are the Original Five with the first Alberta team to win the Esso Cup while also establishing the tournament record of seven wins and no losses and they are among nine returnees from the first team to repeat.
“We’ve been making history as a team and we can do it again,” said Sank after staring down 24 shots without blinking in game two for her 10th shutout and the team’s 16th of the season. “It’s pretty exciting knowing we’re going to Sudbury and we can do a three repeat.
“It’s so important for us and getting there with this team is just amazing.”
Reich echoed Sank’s sentiments.
“I want to see the third-years go for that third one and I also want to teach the first-years what it’s like because I’ve already had the opportunity and I want to be able to show them what it’s like, so it’s awesome that we get to go there with them,” Reich said.
The six-team tournament includes the Halifax Fire (Atlantic), Stoney Creek Sabres (Ontario), Sudbury Wolves (host), Saskatoon Stars (West) and the Quebec rep will be determined this weekend.
Sudbury defeated Stoney Creek 3-2 in the Ontario final Sunday.
Last year the Slash finished 6-1 at nationals in Bridgewater, N.S., and the second of two shootout victories was 2-1 in the semifinal against the Brampton Canadettes.
The final was 2-1 against Saskatoon, the winner of 24 in a row that included the 4-1 result against the Slash in the round robin.
Last year’s championship squad that compiled an overall record of 34-11-1 as Hockey Alberta’s Team of the Year featured 10 returnees from the 2017 Esso Cup team that finished 38-4-1 overall.
There was no stopping the rampaging Slash this season – 26-3-1 (119 GF/43 GA) in the AFHL regular season and 4-0 (17 GF/5 GA) at provincials – before rolling over the Comets for the third consecutive year.
The Comets were undefeated in league (32-0, 217 GF/41 GA) and playoff (4-0, 21 GF/6 GA) action until suffering back-to back losses last weekend at the soon-to-be rebranded Jarome Iginla Arena.
“They’re a very good team. We had to earn it every step of the way. We had to battle through and we came out on top and it was awesome,” said Willan.
The Slash player of the game in Friday’s 5-2 outcome potted a pair, including a momentum-changing breakaway while on the penalty kill after stripping the puck from a Comet at the blueline to make it 3-2 with six minutes left in the middle frame, and notched one assist.
“Game one was very important. You always want to be in control (in a series) and we put ourselves in a great spot going into this game,” said Willan, who sealed the deal in last year’s series against the Comets by sniping the lone goal in the 1-0 deciding game after the teams exchanged 4-2 victories in Richmond, B.C.
Mackenzie Kordic, Kiah Vail and Jaden Bogden also tallied as the Slash closed out the win with three goals in a row after the Comets tied it at two with four minutes gone in the second.
“It was good to put down Vancouver as early as we could and take away as much hope as we could. We wanted to get them down and try and beat them early like that,” Reich said.
The Slash capitalized two times on the power play and the Comets tied it at one in the first with the man advantage.
“We had some breakdowns but overall it was a pretty good game,” said Sank, who started her first Pacific Region game after spending the last two years as the backup to Camryn Drever.
Power-play goals by Reich and Bronwyn Boucher in the opening 20 minutes of game two paved the way to victory.
“We got to the net, we crashed the net and we scored. It was great,” said Willan, an 18-year-old right winger from Edmonton who led the AFHL in scoring this season (24-27-51 in 30 games) and in 2017 (25-25-50 in 28 games) as the league's rookie of the year. “It was a battle all the way through. They played hard and we played hard.”
Reich, 16, put the Slash ahead to stay during a scramble around the crease.
“Bronwyn bumped it back behind the net and the goalie wasn’t paying attention and I just took a backhand to the net and it rimmed up the goalie’s stick and it went in top shelf,” said the Fort Saskatchewan product. “It got everybody really pumped up because we knew that we needed to get a good start after last year when we won the first game and then we ended up not winning the next game. It got us the energy we needed to start this game.”
Boucher’s rebound off a ripper by Kordic was the insurance marker with under three minutes to go in the period.
Shots were 17-10 after the first and 28-16 entering the third for the Slash, who piled up 39 shots in total.
“We battled hard through the whole thing. There were ups and downs but we got the job done,” said Sank, who had a puck ring off the post behind her with 1:58 left in the second.
Sank, the team’s player of the game, was tested eight times in the third and the biggest saves came with the Comets on the power play – a glove snag off a partial breakaway with a couple of seconds left in an early man advantage and a blocker denial on the 23rd shot by the visitors with under five minutes to play.
“There were a lot of shots but my team helped me. It was really good,” said Sank, the AFHL’s top netminder with an 0.81 GAA and nine shutouts and was the co-leader in wins with teammate Holly Borrett (0.86 GAA) at 13 apiece.
The 17-year-old Ardrossan puck stopper also posted a 3-0 record and 1.33 GAA at provincials.
“I’m just happy to do it with my team,” said Sank, who posted a 16-save shutout at last year’s Esso Cup in the 8-0 win over Metro Boston Pizza of Bedford, N.S.