Lightning slowly coming together

Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League squad has just one win at the midway mark

Goaltender Anya Epp of Stonewall has only picked up one victory for the Interlake Lightning so far this Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League season, but the 14-year-old has performed beyond her years as a bantam-aged player. Nathan Liewicki / Postmedia Network

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The Interlake Lightning occupy the basement in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League standings at the Christmas break, but head coach Dean Rebeck senses the tide is starting to turn.

“Players are starting to respond to things on the bench, they’re saying the right things when they see stuff and they are reading the plays,” Rebeck told The Interlake Spectator. “They know what they should be doing from the bench but when they get out on the ice now they have to transfer what they are seeing on the bench as players onto the ice as players, and that’s the transformation that we are going through right now.”

Prior to its final game before the holiday break against the Winnipeg Avros in Warren on Dec. 23 that was still in progress at press time, Interlake held a 1-15-2 record in the eight-team circuit, 11 points back of the seventh-place Winnipeg Ice (7-7-1).

However, wins and losses haven’t been what Rebeck and his fellow first-year coaches have focused on with the Lightning players.

“We basically have players that have never played together before except for maybe three or four of them so you are walking in with almost a Vegas-type team where the team is put together for its first year,” he said. “I told them at the beginning, it’s going to be 75% teaching and 25% coaching up till Christmas probably because a lot of the teams are walking in and it’s the opposite. They are doing maybe 75% coaching and 25% teaching because they’ve got their team back from last year.”

Despite Interlake’s poor record, Rebeck considers his squad the most improved in the league, especially over the last couple of weeks.

“If you’re looking at the complete level in regards to the scores lately they’ve been better,” he added. “A lot of the games have been one-goal games or two-goal games, so you’re not getting that big spread (like earlier this season) because we are improving to the point where the system is starting to work and the girls are starting to have more confidence in themselves. We’re getting there.”

The Lightning opened the season with nine consecutive regulation losses before they nabbed their first point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Avros on Nov. 10. The losing skid reached 14 before rookie netminder Anya Epp made 38 saves for her first career MFMHL shutout in backstopping Interlake to a 1-0 road victory over the Avros on Nov. 28.

Epp, a 14-year-old from Stonewall who could still be playing bantam-level hockey this season, nearly stole another victory on Nov. 30, only to see the Central Plains Capitals pull out a 2-1 win in a shootout.

After a 2-0 loss to the Eastman Selects on Dec. 15, a coach from Eastman told Rebeck that Epp played goalie like a cat.

“I’ve had a lot of comments from a lot of different coaches on her basically saying that goalie of yours is unbelievable,” Rebeck. “Not only are we noticing it as a team that she’s got some exceptional skills as a bantam goalie playing midget, but she’s been looked upon by the rest of the league as one of the better goalies.”

While Epp has held off opposing offences as best she can, Brenna Barylski has led Interlake’s push at the offensive end of the ice.

Brenna Barylski of Arborg leads the Interlake Lightning in scoring with eight points in 17 games in her second season playing in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League. Nathan Liewicki / Postmedia Network

The second-year forward from Arborg is pacing the Lightning in scoring with eight points (four goals, four assists in 17 games), and her patience, ability to read the ice and move the puck with confidence is noticeable.

She’s also got a strong shot that can score from just inside the blue-line, something not a lot of players in the league have the ability to do.

Rebeck is very high on Barylski, who has drawn the attention of post-secondary coaches.

“You can tell that she’s a really good athlete and she obviously has her skillset is a little higher than most,” Rebeck said. “She’s probably one of the better players in the province so it’s nice to have a player like that on your team that can support the rest of your team with her skill set on the ice in terms of killing penalties, on the power play and even strength.

“You can play her all the way up in your lineup from line one to line number four and use her for different responsibilities because you’re on the first line she can put some offence together but if she’s playing on the fourth line she can support the other players on that line in a different role.”

Winnipeg’s Hailey Ross is second on the Lightning in scoring with five points (17gp, 1g, 4a), with defenceman Denali Sigurdson of Riverton just behind with four points (17gp, 1g, 3a).

Denali Sigurdsson of Riverton leads all Interlake Lightning defencemen in scoring with four points in 17 games in her final season playing in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League. Nathan Liewicki / Postmedia Network

With only nine regular-season contests in January and February left before the Lightning begin their first-round playoff series, Rebeck simply wants to see more of his players give consistent efforts down the stretch.

“I don’t talk to the girls about the scoreboard in terms of wins. I talk to them more about their ability to play the system and to compete and to have the effort,” he said. “We hand out two awards after every game and it’s to players who are the most valuable people to the team, meaning players that came, played the system, they played 60 minutes and their compete level was there for the whole time.”

“The more players we get playing like that the better we are going to be,” Rebeck continued. “We have more than two per game that are doing that but by playoff time I would hope that 90% of our players are doing that.”

Twitter: @liewicks

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