Eight doesn't seem like that big of a number, does it? Especially for four teams that won 42 games (LR), 32 games (MELF), 35 games (KK) and 34 games (YKTN) during the regular season. These are likely the eight toughest wins that some of these players will experience in their hockey careers. Eight grinding, emotional and pressure filled wins. Put that in with the fact that you don't win every game and you have to come out to the rink, sometimes the next day, and do it all over again hoping to drop that number of wins.
There's a reason the Stanley Cup, Memorial Cup and RBC Cup are labelled some of the toughest trophies to win in sports. There are no real flukes in playoffs series like these. The team that wins a championship will 99% of the time be the unanimous victor. Of course you'll get your controversial calls (Flames/Lightning Game 6, Sabres/Stars Game 6), but the team that won still had to either put themselves in a position to win or win another game or two.
With the Ice Wolves and Mustangs in the North and the Klippers and Terriers in the South, these are the series' that people have been talking about since the Holiday break. Now that anticipation is at a fever pitch as we all had a week to salivate the prospects of the hockey we will be treated to over the next 1-2 weeks. We've predicted, thought about it, broken it down, revised predictions, realized we can't really know what will happen, then started the process all over again. Doubts, certainties and all possible thoughts and emotions in that spectrum fly around fans heads and now finally.... it's time.
Read on for my preview of the best-of-seven Bauer Conference Final between the Ice Wolves and Mustangs.
Both teams come into their series having dispatched their first round opponents in slightly different fashion. The Ice Wolves/Bombers series was characterized by high scoring affairs in which the outcomes weren't in doubt past the last five minutes or so of the third (aside from game 3). The Mustangs and Broncos were closer in most of their games in a series that on the low scoring side.
Listening to an interview Darrell Mann did with Mitchell Blair for the SJHL website, that's what Mann wants to see in this series as well. Though he thinks the Mustangs have the offence to run with the Wolves in a high scoring game, he feels Melfort has a better chance to win in a low scoring affair. I would tend to agree with that sentiment as the spotlight will be firmly planted on goaltenders Adam Bartko and Charles Corsi in this series.
Corsi was very good, you might even say stellar, in the opening round with the Broncos. A 1.83 GAA and a 0.923 Sv% are numbers that make opposing goal scorers cringe. If the Ice Wolves are going to win this series, they will have to turn those numbers into the 3-4 GAA and .900 Sv% range. It is true that Corsi wasn't tested big time in the Humboldt series, but he took advantage of that and came out with very good numbers.
The same wasn't necessarily true for Adam Bartko. He's a goalie that functions better with lots of action. Action that he wasn't getting in net during the five games of the Flin Flon series. Bartko got over ten shots in the first period just twice in the series (7, 6, 13, 8, 12) while those numbers look very favourable to the Ice Wolves defence, it certainly didn't help Bartko get into a groove. He faced less shots in five games than the two Terriers netminders did in a four game sweep of Estevan. Bartko's goals against average sits at 2.81 and his save percentage is a .887. His are the lowest numbers of any goalie in the final four. That being said, while he did have some tough moments in the series, there shouldn't be concern in Ice Wolves nation.
The stats don't tell the whole story. Bartko made some fantastic saves at key moments in games, and as coaches have told me, it's not how many saves but when you make them. He got burned on some pucks that no goalie was going to stop and when you only get a paltry number of shots, your numbers are going to look pretty wretched. Expect Bartko's play to pick up with the number of shots and the pressure of the situation.
There will be a lot of attention focused on the goalies, but the guys in front of them will have just as much, probably more, input on how this series will run. I only saw these two teams play 60 full minutes in the same game once. That ended up a 3-1 victory for La Ronge in the game that basically put Melfort out of contention for first in the Bauer. That was a fantastic game. Just because they haven't been able to string consistent efforts in games between the two teams, it doesn't mean they weren't exciting. Only one game was decided by more than two goals (6-2 Melfort), and even that one was close until the last half of the third. Their season series was characterized by one team pushing then falling back and the other pushing and bringing the game back into contention. We'll find out soon enough what this playoff series will look like.
After the trade deadline, the Mustangs went from a good defensive team with a very good goalie to a defensive team with a very good goalie and some deadly scoring threats. Adding Hanson and Metz to the fold really solidified the top two lines for the Mustangs into a full one-two punch. There were already a couple offensively gifted players like Jesse Mireau and Brody Haygarth, but the pressure isn't on them to do all the scoring any more. There has been debate whether the moves could damage the locker room dynamic for the Mustangs, but they seem to be functioning just fine.
The Ice Wolves stood pat, aside from adding Nick Keller and Michael Verret, but they were already one of the deepest teams in the league. It's the most underrated thing about La Ronge, and something that people not watching them on a regular basis miss out on. Even with 6 regulars out of the lineup and a couple of AP's in, the Wolves still showed great depth against Flin Flon. Now the roster is making a return to normalcy. With Cliche, Cook and possibly Lindensmith set to return, the Wolves are looking at a good problem. Who do you sit?
Obviously AP's like Franklin Cook, Brett Hope and Jared Iron won't be getting the minutes they did against Flin Flon, but now Coach Beatty has impact players from the first round and even the stretch drive that played very well with extra minutes. Rhyse Dieno comes to mind. He had 13 points in February and had 7 against Flin Flon. It won't be a problem tonight, as there has been a change from what I was hearing this week. Phil Cliche won't be going tonight, the Wolves want to give him just a little bit more time. Lindensmith is back so look for the Big Three to be re-united, or even a new look line with Lindensmith, Ducharme and Dieno. Who knows? With Herauf rippin' up Flin Flon, maybe he sticks with Eggum and Carre.
Regardless of what it does to the lineup, the Wolves will be happy to be healthy. The Mustangs are apparently near 100% with everyone in the lineup. While the Wolves performed well, and showed off that depth when injured, it seemed to start taking a toll, especially with Lindensmith out. This will be a long series and there will be bumps and bruises along the way, so starting it out healthy will be key.
Now, how does either team end up representing the Bauer Conference in the Credit Union Cup Finals? Here's how I think it will break down for the winner.
The Mustangs tend to play a "wait for mistakes" style of hockey. They are very focused in their own end and when they pounce on a mistake, it generally ends up in the back of the net. Their transition game is very fast, and it resulted in most of their goals against La Ronge in the regular season. That pounce on mistakes mentality is very evident by the fact the Mustangs led the league in shorthanded goals (14) during the regular season. If the Mustangs are going to win, their defence will have to contain La Ronge's speed and the forwards will have to be aggressive in taking time away from the Ice Wolves and forcing mistakes.
The game plan is simple, as it always has been. Play physical to keep the play alive in the offensive zone, and overwhelm teams in their own end. Really that's what it comes down to for the Ice Wolves. They don't allow too many goals because they spend an inordinate amount of time in their opponent's end. The Ice Wolves need to keep it simple, like the plan says. When they try to get fancy, bad things happen, especially against Melfort. When you have creative players like Marc-Andre Carre, keeping to a simple game plan gives them the space they need to do what they do so well. Major point, if the pass looks sketchy on the powerplay, they can't make it. Melfort has proven time and time again they will take that puck and hurt teams with it shorthanded.
Players to Watch
Adam Bartko (G) - The Ice Wolves netminder will be compared every night to the guy at the other end of the rink. The Ice Wolves don't need Bartko to be spectacular, but they do need him to be solid. If he can steal a game for the Ice Wolves at some point this series, La Ronge will be in good shape.
Steven Cook (D) - The addition of Cook gave the Ice Wolves the size they lacked on the blue line. He was only in the lineup for eleven games before suffering an injury. In those eleven games, he proved he can be a physical force on the back end and surprised fans with a pretty hard shot from the point. Cook will be called upon to deal with feisty Mustangs forwards.
Doug Lindensmith (F) - Before his injury in the series with Flin Flon, Lindensmith was starting to heat up. He was the Wolves' star in their game three loss and was all over the ice. In six games against the Mustangs in the regular season, Linensmith put up eight points (4 G, 4 A).
Charles Corsi (G) - The Mustangs MVP will be busy this series. The Ice Wolves make a habit of putting around 40-50 shots on goal. That number might decrease with the strong blue line of the Mustangs, but he will be stopping a lot of pucks. There are still health concerns with Corsi and whether the injury he sustained in the regular season is fully healed. The way he played against Humboldt would suggest he's pretty healthy.
Sean Aschim (F) - The Mustangs forward was red hot in the opening series with Humboldt. His five goals and four assists led the Mustangs by the Broncos. He put up good numbers against the Ice Wolves in the regular season as well, with six points in six games.
Jesse Mireau (F) - With a two games suspension taking him out of two games with the Broncos, it would have been tough for Mireau to find a groove. He put up three points in four games, only one of them a goal. He scored 35 during the regular season, including four against the Wolves. The Mustangs need him to be a threat if they are going to take this series.
I hope to see a bunch of Mustangs fans at the game tonight, because it's always louder when the fans start competing. Louder=better in my books. If you can't make it up to the game, catch tonight's webcast on Livesports.com. Of course it's a given that I want to see a ridiculous amount of Wolves fans at the game. Fill the parking lot with "Ice Wolves Car Flagged" cars!
Curtis "the Eagle" Skalicky (not his real nickname) and I will fire up the webcast for the game a few minutes before puck drop, which is at 7:30. Remember, we're on Mountain Time now for those of you watching out of province.
Enjoy the game!