Rarely does a playoff series sweep generate concern for the winning team.
However, there’s concern in the Muskies’ locker-room following their two-game sweep of the lowly Kenora Broncos in their best-of-three NorWOSSA semi-final showdown last weekend.
Despite winning both games by handy margins—11-5 here Friday night and then 8-4 on Sunday afternoon in Kenora, the black-and-gold were not sharp in either game.
“I don’t think we played very good hockey in this series,” head coach Shane Bliss said prior to practice Monday.
“We played pretty well and with hunger when we had the puck, but we didn’t pay very much attention to defence,” he remarked.
Bliss’ concerns about the team’s focus in their own end appear to be warranted given the Broncos’ uncharacteristic success in bulging the twine against the Muskies during the series.
The nine goals they scored in the two-game set were a full two goals more than they managed in six regular-season contests.
“We played 52 games this season and I don’t think there were five teams that scored more than four goals against us. And then in two games in the playoffs, we allowed four-plus in both games,” Bliss lamented.
The normally solid Muskie defensive corps—a group that helped limit opponents to just 28 goals in 18 NorWOSSA regular-season games—appeared somewhat lost against Kenora.
At one time or another in the series, every member of the group was guilty of multiple mental errors. “For our standards, we’re not playing very well at all,” admitted veteran defender Brian Glavish.
“We get running around and disorganized, and people lose focus of their jobs,” he added. “As a defence, we need to have our heads up more and hit the wingers or the centremen [with passes].
“Right now in practice, it’s looking good.”
In addition to the team’s struggles on the blueline, the Muskies did not get the big save they’re accustomed to receiving from either of their goalie—David Moen and Rich Wieringa.
“We also had some suspect goaltending to be honest with you, too,” Bliss remarked.
“I was hoping one of the boys would step up and solidify the number-one spot for the playoffs, but it hasn’t happened.”
Both Wieringa, who started here Friday, and Moen, who played in Kenora, were guilty of allowing weak goals to the Broncos.
The good news for the black-and-gold in all of this is the coaches and players recognize the problem—and are striving to correct it.
“We have to go back to playing our game and be solid in our own end,” captain Ryan Witherspoon said Monday. “We can’t score 11 goals against every team.
“Right now I don’t think we are playing well enough to win the league but I think we have what it takes to do it.
“We just have to play up to our game and see what happens,” he stressed.
The Muskies will need to re-discover their ‘A’ game in a hurry as they’re on the verge of facing what promises to be their most challenging test of the season when they face the Dryden Eagles in the best-of-three NorWOSSA final starting here this Friday night.
The second-place Eagles are rolling right now after having dispatched a feisty Red Lake Rams squad in two-straight games in their semi-final showdown, including a 5-2 road win on Sunday to clinch the series.
Adding to the Dryden lore right now are rumours they’re riding a hot goalie.
“That’s not a good sign going into the finals knowing that Dryden is playing well and they’ve got a hot goaltender right now,” Bliss remarked.
“If we let [in] five goals against Kenora, I’m a little worried about what we have in store against Dryden. We’re going to have to be a different hockey team, that’s for sure,” he stressed.
“We have to go out, get really focused this week, and get a real mean-on for Dryden.
“That’s all it is,” Bliss continued. “Physically we’re fine, but mentally we’re just making some mistakes and not thinking out there. We just have to make sure we’re awake for Friday’s game.”
One player who certainly can’t be accused of “sleeping” on the job right now is Witherspoon.
The Muskie captain has been nothing less than spectacular so far in the playoffs, netting seven goals and three assists in two games to lead all playoff scorers with 10 points.
“‘Spooner’ has been phenomenal,” Bliss said of his captain. “He’s putting the puck in and doing all the little things.
“None of the goals have been highlight reel goals, but they count just the same and they’ve been really big for us.
“He’s been a real great leader,” Bliss added.
< *c>Game 1
The Muskies got off to a strong start against Kenora here Friday night when Witherspoon took a feed from linemate Taylor Jorgenson and beat Bronco goalie Greg Turner just 3:26 seconds into the game.
The advantage would not last long, though, as Ryan Matischuk fired a long drive on goal less than two minutes later that rolled up Wieringa’s stick, rolled over his shoulder, and into the net.
The strange goals continued when Turner tried to fire the puck up the ice while the Broncos were on a power play.
But George Halverson knocked the pass out of mid-air and then beat the Bronco netminder to give his team a 2-1 advantage.
The goal seemed to unnerve the Broncos as the Muskies exploded for three more prior to the first intermission.
The Muskie barrage began when Glavish spotted Witherspoon down low and fed him the puck. The Muskie captain fired a hard pass out front to a wide-open Jorgenson, who one-timed the puck past Turner.
Glavish again was the offensive catalyst moments later while the Muskies were on the power play. The veteran defenceman gained the Bronco zone and passed the puck to Joe Basaraba.
The Muskie rookie circled deep in the Bronco zone before feathering a pass to Kevin Bobczynski, who was just inside the blueline. The newest Muskie unleashed a cannon of a shot that beat Turner top shelf to put Fort High up a pair of goals.
Witherspoon then capped the period with his second of the night.
Turner stopped Dustin Brown’s point shot, but could not corral the rebound and the Muskie captain was in perfect position to jam it home to give his team a 5-1 lead heading into the second period.
Basaraba continued the Muskie attack early in the second as he took a feed from Kyle Turgeon, circled into the high slot, and snapped a shot high stick side that eluded new Bronco goalie Matt Heron.
A five-goal lead in hand, the Muskies became complacent and allowed Kenora back into the game.
Following a stretch of sloppy play by the black-and-gold, the Broncos cut the Muskie lead to three goals courtesy of markers from Jeremiah Ford and Darcy Williamson.
With the Broncos within striking range again, the Muskies upped the tempo of play and were rewarded with a pair of goals prior to the second intermission.
Glavish started a the Muskie rush by feeding Riley Caul, who then sprung Mitch Green on a breakaway. The most experienced Muskie on the roster made no mistake with the opportunity, going top shelf to give the home team a 6-3 lead.
Zach McCool then restored the Muskies’ four-goal advantage by blasting a shot through a screen after taking a feed from Matt McLellan.
Bronco captain Andy Zablaski scored early in the third period but Jorgenson responded with his second goal of the night—and third point of the game—less than two minutes later.
Matt Hebert and Pat Bobczynski drew assists on the goal.
Moments later, Basaraba would get his second of the night as Kevin Bobczynski drew both defenders and the Bronco goalie towards him before dishing the puck to the wide-open rookie.
Turgeon picked up the second assist on the play.
Mike Meyers later scored for the Broncos, but it was Witherspoon who would have the final word as he netted an unassisted goal to complete his hat trick and give the Muskies the 11-5 win.
< *c>Game 2
Witherspoon picked up right where he left off Friday night, netting the opening goal against the Broncos on Sunday afternoon in Kenora.
Brown and Hebert were credited with assists.
The Muskie lead would not last long, however, as Meyers tied the game at 1-1 just over six minutes later.
The black-and-gold took control of the game with a pair of markers prior to the first intermission.
Pat Bobczynski and Hebert combined to set up Witherspoon’s second goal of the afternoon to give the Muskies a 2-1 lead.
Basaraba then scored his third of the playoffs on a play set up by Glavish and Cody McCool to put the Muskies up by two goals after 20 minutes.
Kenora was determined to make a game of it, though, as they opened the second period with goals from Kenton Ammerman and Justin Cain to level the score at 3-3.
But as he had all series, Witherspoon had a response to the Broncos’ challenge.
With less than a minute remaining in the second frame, the Muskie captain took a feed from Pat Bobczynski and scored his third marker of the afternoon to put the visitors up 4-3 at the break.
The Muskies took control of the game early in the third as Witherspoon and Pat Bobczynski combined to set up Hebert’s first goal of the playoffs.
Turgeon extended the Muskie lead less than a minute later as he matched Hebert’s accomplishment—notching his first of the post-season.
Basaraba and Cody McCool got the assists.
Hebert then dashed any hopes the Broncos had of a comeback with his second goal of the period with 6:39 to go in regulation time, assisted by Witherspoon and Turgeon.
For the second-straight game, Witherspoon capped the Muskie attack with an unassisted goal. It was his sixth point of the afternoon.
Rarely does a playoff series sweep generate concern for the winning team.