Muskies clinch first in NorWOSSA

Feeling a little like Goliath facing David here last Friday night, the front-running Muskies wanted to make sure the last-place Kenora Broncos wouldn’t play giant killers this time around.
With a disappointing 3-2 loss to the woeful Broncos up there Jan. 8 still fresh in their minds, the Muskies dominated play right from the opening face-off to assure there would be no repeat upset.
Despite being without five regulars due to a rash of injuries and others battling the ’flu, the Muskies outskated and outhustled Kenora on nearly every shift en route to a convincing 11-1 win.
With the exception of a slow stretch in the second period, the black-and-gold peppered Bronco goalie Joey Boutette with shot after shot as the Kenora defence evidently decided to take the night off.
In fact, the final score actually flattered the visitors as the Muskies had several other quality scoring chances, including a goal that was called back in the second, but just couldn’t capitalize.
On the other end of the ice, Muskie goalie Jamie Booth only faced about two shots in the first period–and was barely tested the rest of the way.
The Muskies opened the scoring just 3:25 into the game when Steve Keesic converted a nice cross-ice pass from a streaking Adam McTavish in the corner.
That goal helped set the tempo of the game as the black-and-gold continually used their speed to create an abundance of scoring chances in Kenora’s end.
Dwight Galusha made it 2-0 just over three minutes later, then Tyler Coyle scored his first of two on the night when he converted a rebound off a shot by defenceman Chris Kellar.
The Muskie offence actually struggled in the first half of the second period but the black-and-gold still managed to widen their lead to 6-0.
Brad Gushulak got things back on track with a power-play marker midway through the period, then McTavish pounced on a loose puck at the side of the net to make it 5-0.
David Lloyd added his first of two on the night with 2:50 left in the period.
Gushulak, Ross Anderson, Tyler Coyle, Jesse Rodrigues, and Lloyd rounded out the scoring in the third for the Muskies, who upped their league record to 13-2.
More importantly, the win clinched top spot in NorWOSSA and home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Muskie head coach Glen Edwards said he was pleased with the win considering five of his regulars were out of the lineup.
“Our competition was pretty weak but we played well in the first and the third,” said Edwards, whose team has outscored their opponents 18-2 in their last two games.
“Our game went down a step in the second but it wasn’t a really good test from Kenora,” he admitted.
Edwards said the team reached their first goal of finishing atop the league standings. But their work is yet to be finished, he warned, as they now try to take the next step of winning a league crown.
After that, they’ll be looking to win the all-Ontarios in Dryden next month.
After the Muskies close out the regular season here this Friday against the second-place Dryden Eagles (in a game that means nothing to the final standings), they’ll open the playoffs here Friday, Feb. 26 against the fourth-place Red Lake Rams in one best-of-three semi-final series.
Dryden will host third-place Sioux Lookout in the other one.
The two winners will meet in the best-of-three NorWOSSA final starting March 5.
Edwards admitted he would have preferred to play Sioux Lookout in the opening series but has no qualms about going up against the Rams.
“Travel-wise, we would rather play Sioux Lookout than Red Lake and because I feel Red Lake has a stronger team,” said Edwards, whose Muskies were 4-0 against both teams during the regular season.
“Red Lake also has a smaller rink which is tough to play in,” he added.
Still, the Muskies have to be considered the favourites to win NorWOSSA this season given their strong offence, paced by the league’s top scorer in Brad Gushulak and with a strong supporting cast in Ross Anderson, Jon Lloyd, Adam McTavish, and Chuck Arpin.
But the black-and-gold also have been doing a fine job in their own end at this stage of the season, surrendering just four goals in their last three league games–and were equally impressive at a recent tournament in Winnipeg.
Part of the reason for the improved defensive play, said assistant coach Ken Christiansen, has been the ability of the Muskie forwards to control play in the opponent’s zone for long stretches.
“Our forwards have been hanging on and controlling the puck,” the veteran assistant coach noted. “We used to throw it away out in front but now we’re starting to look around and take a split second longer [to make a play].
“And the forwards are coming back well in our zone, too,” he stressed.
Christiansen also singled out the play of Jon Rogoza as being the pivotal piece to the defensive puzzle.
“I think the key has been Jon Rogoza really starting to come along,” he said. “He has played well for us, and combined with Kellar and Jon Lloyd as the other pairing, gives us two good sets of defencemen.
“He’s really played well for us,” he stressed.
And if that’s not enough, Edwards said the Muskies have the “best goaltending tandem by far” in NorWOSSA in Booth and Blake Carlson.