Offense was a struggle for the Brainerd/Little Falls Flying Warriors last season as they averaged just 1.6 goals in 26 games.
BLF showed more offensive firepower in its season opener Friday night against Crookston at Brainerd Area Civic Center but the Pirates had even more weapons as they posted a 7-4 win.
Maren Brown scored twice for the Flying Warriors and Emily Stark and Paige Oakley each tallied once.
“This is the closest we’ve been able to play against Crookston in a very long time,” Flying Warriors coach Stephanie Sustercich said, “so I’m really proud of our effort. We still have, obviously, work to do and we weren’t going to give up.”
Brianna Breiland provided four goals for Crookston, which scored four of the game’s last five goals to secure the win. The Pirates, ranked 12th in Class 1A by Let’s Play Hockey, outshot BLF 22-18 but the Flying Warriors held a 7-4 edge in that department in the final period.
BLF was at a disadvantage defensively as only five defensemen were in uniform and goalie Natalie Berens was making her first varsity start.
“The kids just kept fighting for it,” Sustercich said. “We had only five (defensemen) on the bench. That’s what we’re going to work with right now. We’ll have another defenseman next week and we’ll see what happens then.
“It was nerve-wracking for Nat. She had to really think about what she needed to do in front of the net, so we had a nice mid-break conversation about creating opportunities for the team to win. She, too, has to step up her game and we rallied around her in the locker room and I’m proud of her.”
Breiland’s empty net goal with 48 seconds left wrapped up the Pirates’ victory. Earlier in the period, Oakley had pulled BLF within 6-4 with a wrist shot.
After Maren Brown scored her second goal at 4:15 of the second to tie it 3-3, the Pirates rattled off three unanswered goals during a second period in which they outshot BLF 11-4.
Nicole Goosen started the outburst with the Flying Warriors two players short, banging a puck off the post and in.
Breiland completed her hat trick at 10:04 with both teams a player short.
Natasha Skala slapped a shot under the crossbar at 14:26 for a 6-3 Crookston edge.
Stark got the Flying Warriors off to a flying start, scoring 64 seconds after the opening faceoff when the puck was deflected past Pirates goalie Sidney Erickson.
It stayed 1-0 until the 9:34 mark when Breiland scored the first of her two goals in the period. The first went through the 5-hole, the other was scored on a backhand.
Maren Brown tied it 2-2 at 15:03 of the first as both teams were a player short. Lizzy Awender put the Pirates ahead 3-2 with 41 seconds left in the period, scoring on a breakaway when a BLF defender fell and she skated in all alone.
“We came into that second period down a little bit in the energy level and it really started to show toward the end,” Sustercich said, “but by the time the third period rolled around — unfortunately the Zamboni had to break down (between periods) — but it was to our advantage. We picked up some nice energy from that down time.”
The Flying Warriors won’t have much time to feel bad about dropping the opener. They play at Fergus Falls at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17.
“The girls are excited, they’re chomping at the bit,” Sustercich said. “The kids are very positive about tonight’s turnout even though the score didn’t come out in our favor. But the effort was there and the intensity was there and we have a lot to look forward to.”
Crookston 3 3 1 — 7
Brainerd/LF 2 1 1 — 4
First period: BLF-Emily Stark 1:04; C-Brianna Breiland (Tori Demarais) 9:34; C-Breiland (Katlin Spivey) 12:31; BLF-Maren Brown (Sara Wennerstrand) 15:03; C-Lizzy Awender (Brooke Schmitz) 16:19
Second period: BLF-Maren Brown (Mariah Lennander) 4:15; C-Nicole Goosen (Spivey, Awender) ppg 8:44; C-Breiland (Sabrina Delorme, Desmarais) 10:04; C-Natasha Skala (Desmarais, Breiland) 14:26
Third period: BLF-Paige Oakley (CJ Kendall) 1:59; C-Breiland (Delorme) eng 16:12
Shots on goal: BLF 7-4-7—18, C 7-11-4—22
Goalies: BLF-Natalie Berens (15 saves); C-Sidney Erickson (14 saves).
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.