Muskie boys’ team playing with fire

It’s a very good thing that I make my living as a journalist and not a prognosticator. I’ve just completed another middling week on the prediction front in which I went 1-1. On the positive side of the ledger, the Muskie boys’ hockey team did the expected and swept the Kenora Broncos in two-straight games to advance to the best-of-three NorWOSSA hockey final against the Dryden Eagles. The Muskie girls, however, met with a much crueler fate as the Broncos, a team they had dominated all season, took their game to another level and ousted the black-and-gold in the semi-final round with two-straight victories. I’ll not take anything away from the Bronco girls’ performance this past weekend. They were the better team, but I think it also would be unfair to ignore the fact the majority of the Muskie girls’ squad were under the weather. And I’m not talking about sniffles and colds here. The black-and-gold suffered from what can best be described as a ’flu epidemic. For those who have experienced the fun of this season’s ’flu, you know it leaves you feeling drained and exhausted. Now imagine trying to compete in a highly-competitive hockey series. I doubt it’s any consolation to the coaches or the players but I think there’s a lot to be proud of in the Muskie girls’ performance—they played hard despite the fact they were not at their best. The girls’ program continues to establish new standards by which they measure success and, with the notable exceptions of Carly Holt and Cortney Caldwell, everyone from this year’s squad could return to the team in the fall. The future definitely is bright for the Muskie girls’ hockey team. With the Muskie girls no longer factoring into the playoff equation, the focus now will shift entirely to the Muskie boys and their quest to earn a berth at the all-Ontarios coming up March 21-24 in Oshawa. One would think that a team coming off of a two-game sweep in their opening playoff series (one in which they outscored their opponents 19-9) would be feeling pretty good about itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the Muskie boys right now. Quite simply, they did not play well in their opening series against the fourth-place Kenora Broncos. The Muskies were awful in their own end to start the playoffs, allowing a total of nine goals in two games against the Broncos. To put that number into perspective, the black-and-gold only surrendered seven goals in total to Kenora in six regular-season games. There’s a strong argument to be made that last Friday night’s playoff opener at the Ice for Kids Arena here was the worst game the Muskies have played all season. All the usual hallmarks of Muskie hockey were missing. The team didn’t play their physical style, they were sloppy at both ends of the ice, and they lacked their usual jump. Now, I can just imagine what some people are thinking as they read this column: “But Alex, it was Kenora. The Muskies could have beaten them in their sleep.” And there’s definitely some truth to that statement. The Muskies didn’t need their best effort to get past a team that clearly was overmatched by every other team in NorWOSSA this season—a fact that’s obvious given their 1-17 record. However, I don’t believe that’s the point. The fact of the matter is, this is a team that should be finding its stride and looking to peak heading into the NorWOSSA final and, provided they win, the all-Ontarios. In not completely dominating the Broncos, the Muskies have opened the door to questions that haven’t been asked of this team all season. Can this team flip the switch and bring their ‘A’ game when they need it most? Will the goaltending be good enough to carry them through? Is the team disciplined enough at the back end to shut down a strong opponent? The good news is two fold: 1. We won’t have to wait very long to find out if the Kenora series was an aberration or a trend. The Muskies open the best-of-three NorWOSSA final against the Dryden Eagles this Friday night at the Ice for Kids Arena. The Eagles are rolling right now, having just dispatched a feisty Red Lake Rams squad in two-straight games in their semi-final series, including a decisive 5-2 road win this past Sunday. Simply put, Dryden is playing their best hockey when it matters most while the Muskies are hoping their best game will show up when they need it. It’s certainly a dangerous game to be playing with their season hanging in the balance. 2. No one associated with the Muskies is panicking. The coaches and players both know the team didn’t perform up to expectations against the Broncos. They all know the team can play at a higher level. No one is pointing fingers right now and the attitude appears to be, “We’re working hard to fix the problems, we’ll be fine.” These are all positive signs. I’m convinced the first 10 minutes of Friday night’s opener against Dryden is going to be telling. If the Muskies come out, impose their will physically with a few big hits, and forecheck hard, everything should be all right. However, if the team comes out with the same passive demeanor they displayed against Kenora, the series could be over before they know what happened. I’ve chatted with several of the guys on the team this week and I think we’ll see a return to Muskie hockey Friday night. There’s certainly a much greater sense of urgency surrounding this team and I think you’ll see a fired-up, playoff-ready group come Friday night. •Prediction: Muskies sweep the series 2-0 but both games are one-goal affairs.

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