One thing is for certain: the Muskie boys' hockey team is ready to put two years of heartbreak behind them and advance to OFSAA.
Fort High will face the second-place St. Thomas Aquinas Saints (Kenora) in the best-of-three league final that gets underway this week.
After back-to-back years of losing in the third-and-deciding game of the final to the Sioux Lookout Warriors, you can bet the Muskies will be amped up to try to earn their ticket back to the all-Ontarios.
Game 1 goes this afternoon at 4:15 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena with Game 2 set for Friday in Kenora.
Game 3 (if necessary) will be back in Fort Frances next Tuesday (March 10) at 7:15 p.m.
The first-place Muskies advanced to the final with a two-game sweep of the fourth-place Red Lake Rams in the best-of-three semifinal, winning 7-0 in the opener last Tuesday in Red Lake before wrapping up the series with a 5-0 win Saturday afternoon at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“I thought 12 goals-for in two games is great, zero goals-against in two games is great,” said Muskie head coach Chris Sinclair, whose team led just 1-0 after the first period in Game 2 but turned things up with four goals over the final two frames.
“I thought both games we kinda dominated the play, we didn't give them too many opportunities and when we did, our last line of defence—our goalies—stood tall. "Everyone's kind of playing how we need to play,” he lauded.
“It's playoff hockey. It's harder and this series was a good eye-opener to how playoff hockey is because Red Lake is a hardworking team. It's great that we got by them 2-0 but we have another big series starting this week, so we have to be ready.”
Muskie captain Reed Bodnar opened the scoring for Fort High in the clinching game with 8:05 to go in the first period as he took a pass just inside the blueline from Kaden Kocuiba and snapped a long shot past Rams' goalie Kyle Gelderland.
Mikel Ward then skated wide around the left side of the Rams' defence before finding Jacob Albright in the slot, who made no mistake with in burying his first of the afternoon into the top-right corner on Gelderland to double the lead just 1:50 into the middle stanza.
Ward later found himself on the receiving end of a great diving stretch pass from Nolan Mann and he skated in on goal and fired a shot home gloveside to put the Muskies up by three after 40 minutes.
“The boys came to practice every week just ready to go and I couldn't be more proud of them,” Bodnar enthused after the game.
"Everybody pushed to get better every day. We came out strong both games and they [the Rams] just didn't give up, you know, their season's on the line, they didn't wanna give up.
“I feel like we finished strong," he lauded. "With a couple of goals under our belts, everybody started relaxing and getting with the flow, felt better at the end for sure.”
Ashton Cousineau found some room down the left side early in the third and sniped one over Gelderland's shoulder to put the black-and-gold up by four.
Albright then buried his second of the game on a feed from Peyton Avis and Ward on a power play with 1:11 remaining to round out scoring.
Jaden Cooper turned aside every shot he faced to earn the shutout between the pipes for the Muskies.
“Mainly our puck movement, especially in the offensive zone,” Sinclair said when asked what stood out to him most about the Muskies' play in the series.
"We've been stressing making sure we a guy up high, not only for defensive purposes, but finding the soft areas, finding the open ice and having that third guy high, finding the seam pass to that and getting pucks to the net from there. I thought we've been doing a lot better job of being in that area, not being so puck focused and crashing the net.
“Just kind of being patient, being up high, supporting the puck not only in a defensive manner but also looking for that offensive opportunity as well,” he added.
In the opener last Tuesday night in Red Lake, the Muskies got a hat trick from Bodnar en route to the lopsided win as they drew first blood in the series.
Avis opened the scoring early in the first period on a power play before Josh Ward capitalized on a breakaway later in the frame to stake Fort High to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.
Mikel Ward then buried the rebound of Jaxon Gartzke's shot in the middle stanza to push it to 3-0 after 40 minutes.
Bodnar tallied his first of the night on a power play early in the third to make it a four-goal cushion for the Muskies.
Gartzke then found the back of the net before Bodnar added two late tallies to round out the scoring.
Darian Klem was brilliant in net to earn the shutout for Fort High.
The Saints, meanwhile, swept the third-place Dryden Eagles in their semifinal series by scores of 3-0 and 5-2.
“They've played us hard, we won the series against them throughout the year but every game that we've played has been close,” Sinclair said of the Saints.
"That's what I'm expecting. I'm expecting them to bring their best, I'm expecting us to bring our best.
“It's just gonna be the team that wants it more, that battles and competes the extra mile who's gonna come out on top,” he predicted.