Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Raiders win a total team effort

Oak Park girls smother Flames for WWHSHL three-peat

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With just under seven minutes left in the deciding game of the Winnipeg Women's High School Hockey League's Division A championship series -- with the Oak Park Raiders clinging to a slim 1-0 lead, against a barrage from the favoured St. Mary's Flames -- somebody called a timeout.

When the short respite was over, at the Raiders bench there was a scene you don't see all that often in the middle of a heated championship game.

Every Oak Park player on the ice gave their goalie, Amanda Pushka, a hug.

"That's the thing about our team," said Raiders rookie head coach Kelly Smith. "I know it sounds cheesy but we're a family. These girls sincerely care about each other."

Turns out, it worked. Pushka stopped everything St. Mary's had to offer and the Raiders held on to win the game 2-0 to capture their third consecutive WWHSHL championship -- and their second straight final victory over the Flames in the best-of-three final at the Keith Bodley Arena. The Flames forced the third and deciding game with a 2-1 victory over Oak Park on Tuesday, while the Raiders took the series opener 3-2.

Pushka earned those hugs. The Grade 12 netminder made several key saves against an offensive powerhouse in the Flames, who lost just twice all season.

"(Pushka) was doing so good for the entire game and we just needed her to stay in it," said Raiders senior forward Robyn Fraser, who opened scoring at 4:48 of the second period. "She was playing so well. I knew she would be able to hold it for the rest of the game."

The Flames pulled goaltender Casey Dame with over a minute left in regulation, but the relentless Raiders forechecking eventually produced an empty-net goal by defenceman Jesse Hilton with just 13 seconds on the clock.

Not the biggest team. Not the fastest. Not the deepest.

But champions nonetheless.

"That's the kind of team we are," Pushka noted. "We all support each other 110 per cent, even in the tough games. St. Mary's is a really strong team and we just came together. Our determination beat their really good talent. We definitely came into this game the underdog.

"I knew I had to get a shutout or only allow one goal... and I pulled it off."

Indeed, the Flames -- led by Grade 9 whiz kids Danielle Krzysczyk (53 points this season) and Steffi Gross (50 points) -- tried to penetrate the Raiders defence with end-to-end rushes. Nothing clicked. Meanwhile, the Raiders sent wave after wave of forecheckers that kept the Flames on their collective heels.

But then it had to be a total team effort for Oak Park, as the school had to scramble to find a new coach at the start of the season before Smith, an Oak Park alum-turned-teacher, stepped forward.

When tryouts began, 17 players showed up, the roster minimum. Said Smith: "We overcame a lot of hurdles."

Although defending champions, the Raiders had only five returning players. They advanced to the final by the narrowest of margins, defeating Balmoral Hall 2-1 in the best-of-three semifinal -- where two of the games were decided by overtime shootouts.

"We were the team everyone underestimated," Fraser said. "We really showed who we are. We had the fire within us.

"It just proves that no one should underestimate the Oak Park Raiders."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 25, 2011 C1

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