As the Ice Wolves and Bombers shift their best of seven series to the Whitney Forum for a pair of games this week, the term "must win" comes to mind for Flin Flon.
In my mind, the best opportunity the Bombers had to upset the Ice Wolves would be with at least a split at the Mel, based on their style fitting the size of the rink better in La Ronge. They weren't able to do it, though the Bomb Squad showed the spark of the ability to take a game against the Wolves. It will take more than a spark to turn this series around for the Bombers.
The Ice Wolves are like one of those cartoon snowballs rolling down a hill. They are going to get harder and harder to stop, especially if Mike Reagan's crew can't stay out of the penalty box. Coming into the larger ice surface of the Whitney Forum, where they won all four games in the regular season, the Ice Wolves are licking their chops.
Read on for my preview of game three.
There is a force, though, present for games three and four that wasn't at the Forum during the regular season. Obviously, I don't have personal experience with it yet, seeing as it's my first year in the league. However, I have been told that it can be kind of loud and awesome at the Whitney Forum during the playoffs. Maybe someone can confirm this for me?
In all seriousness, the seventh man will be in effect in Flin Flon, just as it was in La Ronge. Based on the increase in volume at the Mel from the regular season to the playoffs, I can only assume it will be similar at the Forum and that makes me happy. The sway a loud fan base can have on a game is pretty powerful, but it works both ways. The louder it gets, the more emotion gets flowing, and that's something both teams, Flin Flon in particular, will have to get a handle on.
Like I said on the Sports Fix with Dan O'Connor last night, the result of this series likely lies in how occupied the penalty box is this week. The Bombers have a choice. They can play reckless and over aggressive like they did in La Ronge, or they can clamp it down and stay out of the box. I'm not talking about the odd hook, trip or hold. I'm talking about that extra jab right in front of the ref or taking a couple whacks at the guy who fell on top of the puck. It's these heat of the moment situations where the Ice Wolves are winning the battle by a landslide. La Ronge has a couple of undisciplined penalties on their stat-sheet, but a lot of those turn into calls on each side because of that extra whack or jab from a Bomber.
The Ice Wolves powerplay has as many goals as the Bombers. That sentence will be the death knoll if the trend continues. Six powerplay goals in two games and running at a ridiculous 35.3%, it's not a knock on the penalty kill for the Bombers, they just spend way too much time on the ice. It would be different if Flin Flon was getting the short end of the stick with a bunch of penalties against them for various reasons, but the penalties that are hurting are the undisciplined type that I'm sure have Mike Reagan pulling out his hair.
You'll notice that is the most I've spoken about one subject all season in a preview blog, but the penalties and powerplay numbers are the defining statistics in the first couple games. Will the trend continue? We'll have to see.
There was a lot of talk about secondary scoring for both of these teams coming into the playoffs. The Bombers showed it off against the Battlefords, but where is it now? The Ice Wolves have been all over the secondary scoring with Rhyse Dieno, Justin Ducharme and Logan Herauf leading the way points-wise. The presence of this second line creates a troubling mismatch for the Bombers.
Their top line has been doing a decent enough job working on the Ice Wolves Big Three, but they're logging minutes like top pairing defencemen. Mike Reagan doesn't appear to be comfortable in using his lower lines against the top two units, while Bob Beatty gets the third and fourth line out against the Bombers top two whenever possible. As a result, the top line is fresh and ready to pop in a massive game-tying goal (3rd Period, Game 2).
The Ice Wolves' depth is their greatest asset, not the 310 combined regular season points of the Big Line. I'm guessing if you asked Bob Beatty, which I intend to tonight, he would agree. It probably helps him sleep a lot better at night too.
Here's how game three needs to break down for each team,
La Ronge needs to score first and early. When Flin Flon is successful against the Ice Wolves, they hold them off the scoresheet and frustrate the skilled players of La Ronge. The longer the game stays scoreless or even tied, the game just starts to get that feel of being available for a steal, much like Game 2 did.
Flin Flon needs to stay out of the cubicle of shame. Plain and simple. With that accomplished, they need to hang around, rely on P.J. Musico and get that opportunity late that gets a lead. Then it becomes rely on P.J. Musico some more and try and capitalize on a forced play when the Ice Wolves are pressing for the tie. Sounds relatively simple, but it's tough in its simplicity. (What does that even mean?)
Here comes the part that may earn me some flack in Flon. The Bombers are not as good as the Ice Wolves. That was glaringly obvious in the first two games and in most of the meetings in the regular season. If you broke down areas of the game, the Ice Wolves would get the check-mark in most categories. Now, before you tune me out completely and click over to your next web-reading, hear me out. The better squad does not always win the series. The team who plays the best (generally) wins. There are examples of this all through hockey history. I wasn't here last year, was it the case in the Ice Wolves win over the Bombers last season?
If the Bombers execute their game-plan and play within their strengths, they have a chance to win every night. I've seen the Bombers play that way, and they are a tough team to beat. The problem is, once they get outside that game-plan, things can unravel on them very quickly. The big question for games three and four is; Can the Bombers execute that game-plan and keep it together if things go wrong? They did for one period in the first two games and they were successful.
The reason for my heavy focus on the Bombers is this. You generally know what you're going to get from La Ronge on a nightly basis, and even when they are off their game, there is enough skill on the ice to flub out a win. The Bombers have been inconsistent this season and really, it's up to them how the rest of this series plays out.
Here are your games three and four players to watch:
Adam Bartko (G) - The Ice Wolves' netminder hasn't been all that busy in the first couple of games and hasn't needed to be that much of a factor. The one time a save really mattered, he made a fantastic toe save on a Deven Stillar breakaway. He's played well at the Forum this year and will be key to the Ice Wolves coming out with at least a split.
Franklin Cook (D) - The affiliate player from the Beardy's Blackhawks will likely see more action with Michael Verret' unavailable. Cook was a spark-plug for the Ice Wolves against the Bombers in game 2, don't be surprised to see him again in game three.
Rhyse Dieno (F) - The rookie just keeps on getting better. His progression has been fantastic and he continues to force Bob Beatty to play him. Five points in his first two SJHL playoff games makes him the Ice Wolves top scorer so far. With the strong month of February he had, it appears March will be just as good, if not better.
Ryan Fox (F) - The captain was the best Bomber on the weekend. A couple of huge goals kept his team in the hunt and his strong play in his own end keeps the Big Line from controlling the game. With his large amounts of ice time, can his endurance hold up?
Jesse Mychan (F) - His 5 minute major penalty wasn't the only thing that went wrong for the Bombers in Game 2, but it certainly didn't help. When on his game, Mychan shows he can be an elite power-forward in the SJHL going forward. The Bombers need him to step towards that level now and stay out of the penalty box.
Tanner Korchinski (D) - Rumour has it Korchinski could make a return in Flin Flon. However, that is a pretty quick recovery from a concussion and that's something you don't want to rush. The return of the Bombers' defenceman of the year would be a huge shot in the arm.
If there is a "Game of the Series" award to be handed out when all is said and done, (I might just do that) Game 3 could be it. The Wolves smell blood, the Bombers are back in their barn and the building should be rockin. To make matters even wilder, we have a new sponsor for the pre-game show. Not quite as important as the action on the ice, but exciting nonetheless. Providing I can actually train myself to say the new sponsor.
You'll find out who the delicious new sponsor is when the ____ Pre-Game Show gets going at 7:15 from Flin Flon on MBC Radio and MBCradio.com. The puck drops on this pivotal Game 3 at 7:30.
Are you ready?