Muskies shone at all-Ontarios

The quarter-final showdown between the 17th-ranked Muskies and No. 7 St. Michael’s Double Blues was not boding well for the black-and-gold.
With three seconds left in Jacob Esselink’s high-sticking penalty late in the first period on Friday afternoon at the Tecumseh Arena near Windsor, the Double Blues capitalized on the Muskies’ failure to clear the puck out of their own zone and subsequently took a shot from the slot that hit the post and went into the net behind Jason Green.
That made the score 1-0 for the defending OFSAA champs—a team that entered this year’s tournament in Windsor boasting a 30-13-1 record. And a team that had gone 3-1 to advance out of its pool and into the do-or-die quarter-finals.
But the Muskies weren’t no slouches, having gone 2-1-1 to advance out of their pool—considered by many to be the toughest of the four in the ‘AAA’/‘AAAA’ division.
“I think we’re starting to make a few ripples in the pool here,” Muskie head coach Shane Bliss had said after the team’s 1-1 tie with the top-ranked St. Mary Monarchs (Pickering) the previous afternoon.
With the help of the inspired play of Green, the Muskies played the role of Rocky Balboa against the Double Blues—going toe-to-toe with one of the pre-tournament favourites and playing pure Muskie hockey in their display of teamwork, discipline (they would only take one other penalty), and skating ability.
In the end, they did not allow another St. Michael’s goal. But, unfortunately, the black-and-gold couldn’t score any and were eliminated from further contention with the tough 1-0 loss.
“We were only one shot away. We had the pressure on them, but we just couldn’t get one by them,” said Bliss.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of because that team is one of the best in this tournament and we didn’t back down from whistle to whistle,” said Green, whose lone regret was not being able “to make that 43rd save.”
Dejected, but still satisfied with their effort, the Muskies made their way to the tunnel leading to their dressing room while cheers from the strong Fort Frances contingent, which had made the 16-hour drive to Windsor to show their support, bounced from the arena’s walls.
“It really helps that people believe in us and it really gives you that extra boost when you need it,” said defenceman Jordan Bale, who had just played his last game as a Muskie.
“I was talking to people back home and the support was unbelievable, and it just kind of brought back memories when [I] played,” said Bliss, who was a member of the gold-medal teams from 1986 and ’89.
“It chokes you up a little bit because you know how much everyone is pulling for you and you want to do it for everyone back home,” he added.
And Rainy River District had every reason to be interested.
The Muskies had opened the tournament with a 6-3 win over the eighth-ranked St. Thomas More Knights (Hamilton) on Wednesday morning, which caused eyebrows to rise on organizers and other teams.
David Pierce lived up to his captaincy by notching a hat trick on a line with Brett Meyers and Tyson Romyn that was creating havoc for the Knights all game.
“You should really talk to Meyers and Romyn because they did all the work out there and I just had to tap them in,” said Pierce said.
Pierce’s first goal was unassisted when he scored on a breakaway while the Muskies were short-handed. But Romyn and Meyers had an assist each on his next two tallies.
Also scoring in a game that saw the Muskies leading 4-1 at one point (but then 4-2 and 4-3) were Brian White, Brock Benjamin, and Josh Sigurdson.
Bale (two), Lucas Romaniuk (who later suffered a minor concussion and would not play for the rest of the tournament), Alex McQuarrie, Matt Redford, and Benjamin drew assists.
Two first-period goals from Meyers (Romyn) and Tyler Miller (unassisted) proved to be the difference Thursday morning end as the beat the 16th-ranked Chatham-Kent Golden Hawks 3-1.
Kevin Bobcznyski, making his OFSAA debut, notched the third goal, with Bale and Brian Vargas getting assists.
“We weren’t playing our best hockey, but I think Jason Green stole the show,” said Bliss.
That Green did with some sprawling and jaw-dropping saves that left some observers at the Forest Glade Arena questioning if he had “Gumby” blood in him.
“It was really big that we win this one,” said Meyers.
“Every game is important, and everyone has got to show up and really take it to the teams,” added Miller.
Next up was the top-ranked team in the St. Mary Monarchs (Pickering) just a few hours later. And the big question was whether the Muskies would be intimidated—or the intimidators?
That question was answered by Green four minutes into the first period (all OFSAA games observed 15-minute periods), who made a spectacular pad save which set the tone in what was turning into a highly-brutish affair.
The game featured seven penalties (four on the Monarchs and three against the Muskies), though many more could have been called. The referee, however, did a wonderful job of letting the players play).
It was on the third Monarchs’ penalty when Pierce pounced on a loose puck and scored to give his team a 1-0 lead just 18 seconds into the second period, assisted by Vargas and Meyers.
The Monarchs knotted the score with 4:15 left in the second period, and that’s the way things remained as Green once again “stole the show.”
“I just want to go out there and show what I can do,” said Green.
But, of course, he had help. A team cannot win with one Mr. Burns and four guys fighting to play the role of Mr. Smithers—and the only reason why the Muskies were undefeated after three games was that each player knew their role (it’s unsure, though, who played the part of Homer Simpson?)
And though the Muskies may look like choir boys, they were miffed about their 17th seeding, which had left a swirling taste of disrespect in their mouths they wanted to displace.
“I told them that this was their opportunity,” said Bliss, adding, “I don’t think we escaped with a tie, I think they escaped with a tie.”
He was probably right, as the Muskies showed grit and determination. They did not let the Monarchs’ obvious size advantage put fear in their hearts, but rather infuse determination into their veins.
“Oh, he was big,” Esselink, the Muskies’ most physically powering player, said of Brian Gonsalves, the Monarchs’ most imposing player who stood about 6’6” on skates.
“It was chippy [but] the ref let us play, and that’s real fun hockey to play,” said Esselink.
“These guys [the Monarchs] are staying at the same hotel as us and they’re loud and they don’t respect anybody, and it was just fun to run them over and hit them,” he added.
“They’ll be pretty quiet tonight.”
The Muskies wrapped up pool play Friday morning with a 4-2 loss to the ninth-ranked Orangeville Bears, but that was a meaningless game because the black-and-gold already had qualified for the quarter-finals that afternoon.
The Bears killed their chance at a quarter-final berth by losing to the Golden Hawks 2-1 the previous night.
“It was a rough deal,” said Bears’ head coach Bill Lenny, referring to Thursday night’s loss. “We scored with 1.4 seconds left and they didn’t count it.”
In fact, the Bears had one other goal disallowed and filed a protest to the OFSAA committee, but it fell upon deaf ears.
Bliss was well aware how fortunate the Muskies were in advancing.
“I found out last night [Thursday] at about 9:30,” he noted. “In a way, it was an upset [the Bears were ranked ninth and the Golden Hawks 16th] and I was little shocked, surprised, and relieved all at once.
“But they [the Bears] just wanted it more than we did and I know the boys talked like they wanted it, but they didn’t produce it on the ice with the same effort,” Bliss added,
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