On Feb. 17, there were 103 teams. Two months and 248 games later, the Road to the Esso Cup is complete. Come April 17, the six remaining teams begin a new
road; 19 more games need to be played to determine Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
Here are the contenders:
HOST TEAM – WEYBURN GOLD WINGS
By the time the Esso Cup begins in their home rink, the Gold Wings will have gone 33 days between meaningful games. Led by captain Bailee Bourassa, who had
a league-best 21 goals, and defenceman Madison Solie, whose 16 assists topped all blue-liners, the Gold Wings finished fourth in the eight-team
Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League.
The team swept the Regina Rebels in three games in the SFMAAAHL quarter-finals before falling in four games to the eventual champions, the Saskatoon Stars.
Weyburn’s goal entering the season was to win their way into the Esso Cup, something no host team has accomplished in the event’s now eight-year history.
It fell short there, but a Gold Wings win on home ice would still set two marks: first host team to win the Esso Cup and first team to win it twice.
ATLANTIC – METRO BOSTON PIZZA
One year after losing the Atlantic Region championship game in a shootout, Metro went through the five-team tournament undefeated – including four shutout
wins – to book its trip to the Esso Cup.
Lockdown defence was the team’s strength all season. Even though it finished second in the Nova Scotia Female Midget AAA Hockey League – its run of six
straight regular season titles ended by the East Hants Penguins – Metro allowed only 25 goals in 24 games. Terra Lanteigne posted a league-best 0.93
goals-against average; Josée Thibeau was right behind at 1.09.
Metro beat the Northern Selects in four games in the semifinals, setting up a showdown with the Penguins. East Hants took two of the first three games.
After that it was all Thibeau, who turned aside 32 of 33 shots in Game 4 and 31 of 32 in Game 5.
This marks Metro’s third appearance at the Esso Cup. It finished sixth in 2013 and fourth in 2012, the best-ever showing by an Atlantic team.
QUEBEC – EXPRESS DU RICHELIEU
For the first time in three years, Quebec has a team at the Esso Cup. The Express du Richelieu hopes to pick up where its predecessor left off: LHFDQ Nord
won the national championship in 2013.
Express emerged as regular season champions in the Ligue de hockey féminin de développement du Québec, one point clear of the Citadelles de la
Capitale-Nationale. A 15-game winning streak to start the season and the league’s best offence – Éloïse Dubé and Léonie Philbert finished one-two in
scoring – allowed the squad to overcome mid-season injuries that led to one player being lost for the season and another, Sandrine Cyr, moving from defence
Richelieu went 6-0 in the first round of the playoffs and won three of four in the second round. In the semifinals it beat the Citadelles 4-2 and the next
day took down its biggest rival, the Élites de l’Estrie, 5-2, to secure its spot in the Esso Cup.
ONTARIO – BRANTFORD ICE CATS
Playing its own brand of high-risk, high-reward hockey, the Brantford Ice Cats had a +61 goal differential in winning 17 of 22 games – 10 via shutout –
during the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League regular season.
The team went undefeated (4-0-2) during playdowns to easily advance to the OWHA provincial championship, where two wins and a tie during the preliminary
round sent it directly to the quarter-finals.
There, Brantford got the team it wanted: the Sudbury Lady Wolves, the two-time defending provincial champions and 2015 Esso Cup winners. Eliminated a year
earlier by Sudbury, Brantford turned the tables with a 2-0 win.
The Ice Cats got by the league’s stingiest defence, the Whitby Wolves, in the semifinals, and captain Paige Rynne scored with just over a minute left in
overtime in the provincial final against the Toronto Aeros to lead her team to its first national championship appearance.
The Ice Cats now look to become the third Ontario team – with Sudbury and the Thunder Bay Queens (2010) – to win the Esso Cup.
WEST – SASKATOON STARS
The Saskatoon Stars return to the Esso Cup one year after winning a bronze medal. They are young – only four of 20 players won’t be eligible to return in
2016-17 – but with 14 returning players they may be the most experienced team in Weyburn.
The Stars won 24 of 28 games during the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League season to finish 10 points clear of the field. After an easy
quarter-final win over the Battlefords Sharks, the team took out the Weyburn Gold Wings in four games. Saskatoon gave up Game 1 of the championship series
to the Swift Current Wildcats and trailed 3-1 in Game 4, but Grace Shirley’s overtime goal clinched a second straight SFMAAAHL title.
In the West Regional, Saskatoon prevailed in two close games against the Manitoba champion Yellowhead Chiefs, booking a return trip to the Esso Cup
The Stars now have their sights set on joining the Notre Dame Hounds (2011) and Weyburn Gold Wings (2014) as Saskatchewan champions turned national
PACIFIC – ROCKY MOUNTAIN RAIDERS
For the first time in the Esso Cup’s eight-year history, the Pacific Region is not represented by the Edmonton Thunder. The Rocky Mountain Raiders, behind
the Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League’s top-ranked offence, claimed their first regular season title.
In the playoffs, the Raiders dispatched the Thunder in three straight games to advance to the five-team AMMFHL provincial tournament. There, they swept
their first three games before falling to the Calgary Fire and dropping into the semifinal. After beating the Spruce Grove Saints, the Raiders avenged the
earlier defeat to the Fire, 2-1, to win their first provincial title.
In the Pacific Regional, Rocky Mountain travelled to British Columbia to play the Northern Capitals. Goaltender Kate Lloyd shut the door in Game 1, Erin
Fargey did the same the next night and the Raiders swept the series with a pair of 3-0 wins.
Now the Raiders look to do something the Thunder couldn’t do in seven appearances: bring the Esso Cup back to Alberta.