Twenty-eight games later, it’s on to the playoffs for the Pembina Valley Hawks.
The 2017 Esso Cup hosts hit a few bumps in the road to end the regular season, dropping three of their last five games. But the Hawks finished with a 20-6-2 record, good enough for second place in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League, setting up a first-round series with the seventh-place Central Plains Capitals.
“The girls are ready to go. We had a good weekend in Thompson (winning a pair of games against the Norman Wild to close out the season). Everything was working well there, so we are going to carry that through to the first round,” head coach Dana Bell told Pembina Valley Online .
“It’s always a battle against Central Plains, but the girls know what they have to do. They have to bring high intensity for a full 60 minutes every game. We need to be aggressive and we need to stay disciplined at the same time. That’s the key for us.”
The Hawks were a model of consistency through the regular season; the three-game slump from Jan. 22-29 was just their second multi-game losing streak, and three times they won at least four in a row.
The only team Pembina Valley seemed to struggle against? The Westman Wildcats. To be fair, though, the entire league failed to keep up with the Wildcats, who won their last 18 games to claim first place.
The Hawks were one of just three teams to beat Westman, earning an early-season 2-1 overtime win on Oct. 21, but the Wildcats took the season series 3-1, with one of those wins coming in an extra period.
Offensively, it was scoring by committee for Pembina Valley, which put seven players in the top 20 of MFMHL scoring; each of those players reached the 20-point plateau, with Makenzie McCallum and Sage McElroy-Scott racking up 37 points apiece to finish tied for second in the scoring race.
Mackenzie Hutchinson, the Hawks’ captain, did her part from the back end, leading all MFMHL defencemen with 22 points while playing in all 28 games.
Between the pipes, it was Halle Oswald who carried the load, appearing in 19 games, and she responded by leading the MFMHL in wins (15) and co-leading in shutouts (two), while finishing third in save percentage (.936) and tied for fifth in goals-against average (1.53).
But all the numbers, and the regular-season success, don’t mean anything when the playoff puck drops.
“I don’t think you can take anybody lightly in this league. Everything is so close right now,” said Bell. “Every team is getting better. Our focus is to go out and play our game and stay focused on our game.”
The Round 1 match-up with the Capitals provides Pembina Valley with an opportunity at redemption; Central Plains ended the Hawks’ season in 2016, winning their best-of-five semifinal series in four games.
Pembina Valley had the edge in the regular season, outscoring Central Plains 16-5 in winning three of four.
The Hawks are trying to do what no Esso Cup host team has managed to accomplish in the first eight years of Canada’s National Female Midget Championship; a host has never won its way to the national tournament, or been the last team standing.
Pembina Valley opens the 2017 Esso Cup against the West Region champions on April 23.