It's all still to play for in the Cochrane Chaos' championship series against the Sherwood Park Steele, after their 3-2 overtime win in Cochrane on Saturday night tied the series at one game apiece.
The Steele took game one in the best-of-five series to crown this year's champion in the Alberta Junior Female Hockey League (AJFHL) on March 11, before Cochrane tied the series 1-1 with an OT victory the next day.
First-year Chaos forward Kaylee Stagman was the hero at the SLS Centre during game two on Sunday, sniping the winning goal on an unassisted effort.
“I remember getting the puck off the face-off,” the 19-year-old recalled. “I ended up walking around the perimeter of the zone. I never got a passing lane. I got up to around the blue line, and I turned to beat the girl who was on me. I cut through the middle, had a lane, took it, and went upstairs glove.”
Stagman's goal was her fourth of this year's playoffs. She had also netted an unassisted shot during the first period to put the hosts up 1-0.
Cochrane's other goal on the night came from fourth-year forward Sarah Nusl, in the second frame. The 21-year-old said it means a lot to even the series, as a loss would have put the Chaos in a do-or-die situation for game three.
“I said in our huddle before the game began, this game was the difference between coming out of that weekend on a high, or the championship being on the line in our next game coming up on Saturday,” Nusl said.
“Having the series even now really means next weekend there’s a little bit less pressure. We really earned that win, and I think it inspires confidence in the group for this upcoming weekend.”
The Chaos qualified for the AJFHL finals following playoff series victories over the Calgary Titans and the Calgary Jags. According to head coach Derek Loomer, this year is the first time Cochrane has been in the finals since 2020, but the post-season was called off that winter due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was not much of an AJFHL season in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, and then the Chaos went out of the second round of the playoffs last year.
Nusl, who was a first-year player for the team during that 2020 playoff run, said it would mean a lot to book-end her time with the junior program by winning a championship.
“I think we have a really strong group of upper-year players, myself included, and all our over-agers are all really determined to get that championship this year," she said. "I think we’ve been able to communicate that well with the group and inspire that drive with everyone else as well, which has been great.”
She added a main strength of the Chaos this season has been the players' generally positive attitudes, both on and off the ice.
“Our willingness to communicate with each other has been key to our success,” she said. “It’s never a blaming game. It’s all about what we can do as a group to be better, and that’s really contributed to our success this year.”
The Chaos will resume their series with the Steele on March 18 and 19 in Sherwood Park. If game five is necessary, it will be back in Cochrane on March 25 at 4 p.m. at the SLS Centre.
As someone who may be donning the Chaos jersey for the final time this winter, Nusl said she and everyone else on the Chaos are fully focused on the task at hand.
“If this is probably my last year, I’d like nothing more than to come home with a championship,” she said. “I have a belief in this group that we can make it happen this year, and I look forward to seeing what the next couple of games can bring.”