MISSOULA — They're challenging themselves like never before, so there's bound to be growing pains.
The Missoula Lady Bruins U19 hockey team is used to winning. They've mined gold at the state tournament the past two years and they were on a seven-game roll heading into their Northern Rockies Classic this weekend at Glacier Ice Rink.
The Lady Bruins are so used to winning, in fact, that seven-year coach Grace Hoene has opted to challenge her cat-quick team in a different way. Instead of playing community club foes like they always do, they're battling hand-picked all-star teams this weekend.
Missoula played its tourney opener Friday afternoon against an all-star team Hoene helped put together. A team that even included some former Lady Bruins, including one with college hockey experience.
That team, the Hockey Wolf All Stars, snapped Missoula's seven-game win streak with a 1-0 win. Ironically, it was a former Lady Bruin, Ali Elliott of Victor, who scored the only goal with just under three minutes left in the second period.
Did losing leave the Lady Bruins longing for simpler times? Nah.
"It's way more fun to do it this way," said center Sid Triepke, a Missoula Hellgate senior. "We just need to work on faster passing and connecting more.
"It's way harder to score. We just need to work on getting it in and also getting it around their defense."
The goal is to get better before state tournament time rolls around in February. Hoene said she feels her team learned a few things it can take into Saturday's contests against Idaho at 1:15 p.m. and Utah at 8:45 p.m.
"We just came off games a couple weekends ago that were a little slower and I think that showed, especially in the first period," Hoene said. "We started getting into our own game in the second period but didn't match it consistently enough to put the puck in.
"We had more shots than them (23-22) but we also missed the net a lot of times. And we weren't quite crashing the net the way we normally do. Hopefully we'll put more in the net tomorrow."
Lost in the disappointment of a team setback was the solid performance turned in by Lady Bruins goalie Aubrey McKay. The junior, who lives in Florence and attends Hellgate, stopped 22 shots, some of which were taken from point-blank range.
"I told the girls in the locker room, I'm OK with losing these close games that are competitive and fast and we can learn something from them," Hoene said. "I'd rather lose 1-0 in a game like that than beat a team 10-0. You grow way more and that's what we're looking to do prepping for state."
Hoene expects Idaho to be even more competitive than the Hockey Wolf All Stars. But her Lady Bruins (13-5-1) will be bolstered by the return of three players who had prior commitments Friday: Andi Carnes, Shaye Ewing and Pilar Seielstad.
"We'll see if we can bring a little more energy and consistency," the coach said.