“It was the best team play that I’ve seen all season”
by Than Acuff
It was a bittersweet and physically brutal ending to a great season for the WEHA Blades U19 girls hockey team as they charged through the post-season tournament, winning four in a row before falling in the championship game 3-2 in overtime.
The three-day tournament run would be tough, but well within reach of the Blades. Coach Tony Lambert knew it would take four wins in a row to reach the finals and earn a potential rematch with the number one team in the league, Colorado Springs. And during the workouts leading up to the playoff run, Lambert saw something new in his team.
“Energy was definitely high, the girls were focused,” says Lambert. “The senior leadership reeled the whole team in together.”
The Blades got off to a great start in the opening game of the playoffs against the Aspen Leafs on Friday, February 26. For years the two teams traded off league titles but the Blades have owned the Leafs the past two years and continued that domination with a 2-0 win.
After a scoreless first period, Sierra D’Aquila broke the stalemate eight minutes into the second period with a quick wrist shot. Three minutes later Elizabeth Shaw tacked on a second goal and the Blades’ defense and goalie Anika Anderson did the rest to secure the win.
“Motivation was high but nerves were high,” says Lambert. “All of a sudden, they figured it out, they didn’t get frustrated and once they settled down they dug in the corners and teammates were joining the rush.”
One down, three to go.
Later that day the Blades took the ice against Steamboat in what turned out to be a bit of a nail-biter as it wasn’t until the third period that the Blades broke the stalemate.
“Their goalie had an incredible game,” says Lambert. “She probably had 10 unbelievable saves.”
Despite eventually outshooting Steamboat 39-10 in the game, the Blades didn’t find the back of the net until four minutes into the third period when Elizabeth Stepanek scored. The insurance goal didn’t come until five minutes later when Kendl Santelli picked the inside of the post for a 2-0 lead. Steamboat netted a goal in the final minute but the strike did nothing other than foil Anderson’s bid for another shutout.
“The opportunities were there for us and our defense and Anika [Anderson] came through,” says Lambert.
Two down, two to more to go.
With the first two major challenges out of the way on the first day, the Blades faced off against Summit on Saturday, February 27. The Blades edged out a couple of close wins over Summit during the regular season, so Lambert made sure his girls were ready for another close game.
“Morale was high and we just told them to stay focused,” says Lambert. “They all had a pretty good feeling about Summit and we know Summit has some good players—they just don’t play as a team so we kept emphasizing team play.”
It turned out the Blades were just gaining momentum after the first day of the playoff tournament as Summit posed little trouble and the Blades cruised to a 4-0 win.
After slow starts in the first two games, the Blades opened up a 3-0 lead in the first period against Summit. Izzie Dethloff kicked it off with a goal in the seventh minute. The initial strike primed the offensive pump of the Blades attack as four minutes later Kendl dug the puck out of the corner and fed Dethloff for the goal, and Alexis Duke struck two minutes later off an assist from Bryar Robbins.
“They were more focused than I’ve ever seen,” says Lambert.
The Blades “went stagnant” a bit in the second period but returned to their game plan in the third period and it paid off two minutes into the final period as Stepanek dug the puck out of the corner and dropped it to Ryan Carroll. Carroll took the pass and slid it across to Maddie Lambert, who blasted it home to cap the 4-0 shutout win.
“That was a beautiful goal,” says Lambert.
Three down, one more to go for revenge.
The last team standing between the Blades and the championship was Colorado Select. While the Blades had little trouble with Colorado Select’s play, it’s their attitude that can sidetrack teams and Lambert made a point of reminding his girls of their roles on the ice as players.
“The focus was not to retaliate,” says Lambert.
The Blades responded, using their speed and style to counter Colorado Select’s physical and mouthy game. Maddie put the Blades up 1-0 in the first and as Colorado Select got more and more frustrated and tried to take it out on the Blades, the Blades just got better—Kendl and D’Aquila netted two more goals each and Stepanek and Dethloff added in one goal each for the 7-0 win.
“We definitely opened up a can, awoke the giant,” says Lambert.
“Every time they mouthed off, we just scored,” adds assistant coach GJ Santelli.
With the initial challenge of winning four in a row met, the Blades then turned their attention to the final task at hand, the title. They would be without Shaw, who was injured in the Colorado Select game, but were firing on all pistons when it mattered most.
“It was the best team play that I’ve seen all season,” says Lambert. “Speed, shot selection, passing, everything just came together at the right time.”
Nevertheless, nerves were running high going into the championship game against Colorado Springs. Not only is Colorado Springs good, but they have also been questionably physical all season.
“My team was extremely nervous,” says Lambert. “Mostly concerned for their safety and their teammates’ safety.”
Colorado Springs took advantage of the Blades’ nerves, taking a 1-0 lead late in the first period but the Blades hung in there and gained momentum at the start of the second period.
“They were still nervous, but not quitting,” says Lambert.
One minute into the second period, Bradley Santelli provided a spark when she took advantage of a shift change and carried the puck coast-to-coast to score, easing some of the tension among her teammates.
“That kind of livened the place up,” says Lambert. “The girls realized they could play with them.”
Colorado Springs retook the lead two minutes later, but the Blades continued to scrap, trading off rushes with Colorado Springs.
“The girls would step up, endure a barrage, make a great play and then go right back at them,” says Lambert.
Eight minutes into the second period, the Blades tied it up again when Bradley ripped a shot and Stepanek jumped on the rebound to push it through. Then things turned ugly.
Thirty seconds later, Robbins was battling for a puck and when she came out with it, got tee’d up and leveled with a head-high hit. She managed to make it to the bench but was in need of immediate medical assistance.
Not more than a minute later, Dethloff got cross-checked to the throat and went down. Lambert was on the bench tending to Robbins, Santelli was tending to Dethloff and assistant coach Katie Brawner was at the helm coaching, as Colorado Springs racked up a boarding penalty, a tripping penalty and a game misconduct call in the span of four minutes.
“When we tied that game up, it went from good hockey to bad hockey,” says Lambert. “It clearly went from clean hockey to intimidation and bullying, just brutal. I felt like I was watching the movie Slapshot—it was terrible to watch a good team, and they are a good team, stoop to that level.”
As the second period came to a close, an ambulance arrived and they had to take Robbins across the ice on a stretcher to the hospital. With his team visibly shaken by the loss of Robbins and Dethloff sitting there with a stick mark across her neck and unable to talk, Lambert did what he could to help his team through the situation.
“Everyone was crying and upset and I’m trying to calm everyone down,” says Lambert. “The girls were saying, ‘If they’re going to play like this, they can have the championship.’ I had to tell them that the ref has control of the game and we’re not quitters, let’s go out and get this.”