After getting out of the Palace with a win in Game 4, the Ice Wolves have their foot firmly planted on the collective throat of the Mustangs. It kind of broke down like this.
A decent first period, followed by an abysmal second with a very underrated and pretty brilliant third period to top things off. When a team gets out shot 33-19, they don't win too often. The Ice Wolves, who rarely get out shot, put forward their lowest shot total of the entire regular season and playoffs (tied w/19 vs Humboldt Jan. 7). That second period was largely to blame as they put one, yes, one shot on goal in the period. It was actually a pretty good shot on goal from Aaron Enns.
So how did the Ice Wolves win 3-1? Read on and I will impart my thoughts on how it happened.
Like they have in every game of this series, the Ice Wolves scored first. Late in the period, the Billet Line was doing some great work down low when Nathan Boyer won a battle against a couple of Mustangs that seriously out sized him. Boyer got the puck free for Graham Smerek who fired a quick pass to Skyler Hladun (who's name is now right on the website) and he ripped it behind Charles Corsi for the lead. The Billet Line was fantastic in this game and generated four or five scoring chances through the evening with one fantastic play that Corsi denied with a stunning pad save. Like pretty much every first period in this series, it left a little to be desired as neither team played great, but didn't play poorly either.
The second was a different story. The Mustangs were everywhere. The Wolves couldn't get up the ice like Melfort had ten guys out there at all times. Even the usual danglers that make their own space like Herauf and Carre couldn't get anywhere. The Mustangs were great on defence and they got their chances on Adam Bartko as well. Funny enough, it would be a random fluke play that ended up behind the Wolves' netminder. Sean Aschim tossed the puck towards the net from on or behind the goal line and it went in off the back of Bartko's knee (he showed me where it hit him when we were on the bus later). As Ice Wolves defenceman, Ben Bula (my colour man for the evening) said, Batko got caught cheating towards the middle. The goal seemed to galvanize the Wolves netminder and he was unbeatable for the rest of the game. The listed shots on goal, 15-1 in favour of Melfort. We figured the Wolves got something in the neighbourhood of 4 or 5 shots, but really only one real scoring chance.
That set up a third period when the Ice Wolves needed to show some life. That's exactly what they did. They put on some early pressure and were rewarded with some help from the guys in stripes. There were some soft calls in the game, and I'm not sure how Brant Henry-Norton drew the cross checking call, mainly because I didn't see it, but I don't think it was anything major. Sean Aschim earned his slash with a pretty good whack on one of the Ice Wolves' sticks in the offensive zone. Regardless, the Wolves suddenly found themselves on a gift wrapped five on three powerplay.
After fanning twice on a puck sitting in front of a half-empty net, Marc-Andre Carre got a little redemption when he ripped a wrister past Corsi from the right faceoff circle, putting the Wolves ahead. The Mustangs got a pretty good push back and were building momentum until Logan Herauf put them away in dazzling fashion.
The play started with an excellent tape to tap pass from Travis Eggum in the far corner of the Ice Wolves zone all the way to Herauf at the red line on the near side. Herauf gained the zone and on the outside, it looked like Scott Brkich would be able to take care of him along the boards, much like he had all game. Nope. Herauf put on a ridiculous toe drag that had Brkich turning completely the wrong way. He then moved in on Corsi, pulled what looked like a half drag and casually flipped the puck into the top corner, following it up with a casual one handed celebration. You could feel the air come out of the Mustangs, it was about as demoralizing goal as I've seen all season.
After taking the 3-1 lead, the Wolves locked down the neutral zone and the Mustangs just couldn't get anywhere with the puck. It looked very much like a reversal of the second period. The Mustangs would finally break through and get some solid opportunities, but Adam Bartko was there to keep the 'Stangs at bay. Put up another victory for Bartko in the goalie battle that very few picked him to win.
In the wake of that very lopsided second period, and the low shot count; the textbook third period the Wolves put out will likely go under the radar. It was the pure example of getting a two goal lead and just putting away the opponent. That said, the Wolves were fortunate to get into the third tied. It isn't too often you'll get away with being controlled that completely and only give up one goal.
1. Skyler Hladun - LR - 1 G, 1 A - Apparently I should interview Hladun before every game. It seems to work pretty well. This series has been excellent for Hladun as he now sports three goals in his last three games. Time on the powerplay in place of Doug Lindensmith certainly suits Hladun and he gives that top unit the immovable screen of goalies' nightmares.
2. Adam Bartko - LR - 32 Svs - Put up the steal for Bartko. The second period was a gem with only the one minor flaw to speak of. If his fantastic post to post save shortly after didn't make up for it, then robbing Brody Haygarth while he was still down a split second later certainly did. Another great game for the Wolves goalie as it looks like he wants another crack at the Terriers.
3. Lee Christensen - MELF - This is kind of a cumulative star. Christensen has been holding the Ice Wolves scorers at bay when he's out on the ice. He's rarely out there for the Wolves markers and he keeps the Mustangs breakout moving. When transition is so important for a team, that first pass is what sets it all up and Christensen has certainly been doing his job in that department.
Honourable Mention - Logan Herauf - LR - 1 G, 1 A - I don't give an honourable mention too often, but Herauf deserves one. He was beaten up pretty good in Game 4, taking a lot of hits through 40 minutes. His unbelievable goal helped solidify the Ice Wolves grasp on the game and now the series.
Now the focus shifts to Game 5 of the series on Friday. Can the Ice Wolves finish off the Mustangs in as convincing a fashion as they did the Bombers
(9-3)? I highly doubt the Mustangs will make it as easy as Flin Flon did. Melfort will have to find some mojo pretty quick. It was a pretty down team that left the ice at the Palace on Wednesday, and they will need to find some confidence right quick if they are going to have a shot at winning the next three games.
The Ice Wolves didn't lose three in a row all season, and they only lost back to back games twice. One of those situations was to the team that now awaits the winner of the Bauer Conference Final. The Yorkton Terriers can put up their feet and watch the Northern Rivals beat each other up while they heal bumps and bruises. For the Ice Wolves, a quick end to the series is imperative if they want to be at full power heading into the SJHL Final.
I'll have a preview of Friday's game up tomorrow morning.