Not much has separated the Muskie girls' hockey team and the St. Thomas Aquinas Saints (Kenora) this season.
What seemed to be the inevitable clash of the titans has come to pass as the first-place Muskies and second-place Saints will square off in the best-of-three NorWOSSA final this week to decide who advances to OFSAA 'A/AA' championship in Stratford from March 24-26.
Game 1 goes tonight at 7:15 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena while Game 2 is set for Saturday in Kenora.
Game 3 (if necessary) will be back in Fort Frances next Monday (March 9) at 7:15 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Fort High needed a pair of wins in a doubleheader against the host Dryden Eagles on the final day of the NorWOSSA regular season to overtake the Saints for top spot in the standings.
The Muskies also claimed the season series 2-1 over St. Thomas Aquinas, with each game being decided by two goals or less. Fort High also needed extra time to nab both wins in a shootout.
“We are expecting some fast-paced, intense games against the Saints,” said Muskie head coach Nicole Clarke, whose team advanced to the final after sweeping the fourth-place Sioux Lookout Warriors in the best-of-three semifinals (3-2 in overtime here last Tuesday night and then 8-3 on Thursday in Sioux Lookout).
“The Saints are an extremely tough competitor and we know they will be coming at us strong,” she warned.
“I am confident in our team's ability and know that if the girls continue to work together and execute what we've been working on throughout the season, we will be successful. We have come so far this year and the coaches are extremely proud of this group. We are looking forward to a great series against the Saints.”
Sioux Lookout put up an admirable fight in Game 1 of their semifinal, stunning the Muskies with the only goal of the first period off the stick of Mackenzie Kakapetum with just over seven minutes left in the frame.
The Warriors also outshot the hosts 13-11 in the frame.
Kianna Antonick finally drew Fort High level at the 12-minute mark of the middle stanza as she tipped Issy Taylor's shot from the point in past Warriors' goalie Anna Wesley.
“Game 1 of the playoffs is always a tough one, we were set to play a team that we had been successful against all season long, so going into this game we were confident,” Clarke said.
"However, Sioux Lookout came into Game 1 looking for the win, and some of their key players really stepped up for them.
“I think the first period was a bit of a wake up call for us," Clarke admitted. "And we were able to try and turn the game around going forward.”
With Muskie defenceman Kathryn Fischer in the penalty box for hooking, Mackenzie Pettit put the Warriors ahead 2-1 with 5:08 to go in the third as she roofed a shot over Muskie goalie Kamryn Sandelovich.
That lead didn't last long, however, as Antonick replied for the hosts on the very next shift as she jammed the puck home underneath Wesley to knot it at 2-2 and force overtime with 4:33 remaining.
“I'll admit when the Warriors scored their late goal in the first game, it was a little nerve-wracking,” Clarke said.
“With that being said, I was confident that the girls would come back to make sure we left Game One with the win. Over the course of this year, we have had to come from behind in several key games and the girls have persevered to come out with the win.”
Muskie captain Jill Calder was denied on a breakaway late in the extra frame by Wesley but Tatum Glowasky made good on a scoring chance just moments later to lift the Muskies to victory.
Sandelovich made 32 saves to earn the win in goal while Wesley was solid in turning aside 41 shots in a losing cause for the Warriors.
It was a much different story for the Muskies in Game 2 as Abbie Kenny lit the lamp four times to pace the 8-3 romp.
Calder found the back of the net twice while Glowasky and Antonick supplied singles to round out the offence.
Pettit scored twice while Haylee Bouchard also tallied in a losing cause for the Warriors.
“Going into Game 2, the girls were determined to prove themselves,” Clarke stressed.
“After Game 1, the nerves had worn off and the girls were ready. You could tell that they felt different than they did heading into game one and they came out strong.”
Clarke was impressed with Kenny's performance in the clinching game, as she scored three of her four goals within a five-minute span, but also was pleased with how the team gelled offensively overall.
“Getting those three quick goals really set the tone for the game and gave the girls the momentum they needed,” she lauded.
“The girls were able to successfully execute everything that we have been working on in the offensive zone, right off the bat.”
The Saints, meanwhile, swept the defending NorWOSSA champion Eagles in their semifinal series last week with scores of 6-0 and 5-1 to advance to this week's league final against the Muskies.