SIOUX CITY | As his players entered the Sioux City Musketeers’ locker room, their coach, Jay Varady, took time to slap their shoulders or offer fist-bumps.
With tired, moist red eyes and a half-smile, Varady offered players congratulations on an outstanding season Tuesday night. The largest crowd in Musketeers history, a sellout of 6,309, offered their share of applause, but when Tuesday night’s fifth game of the Clark Cup Finals series ended, there were more Chicago Steel supporters on the Tyson Events Center ice, celebrating their franchise’s first-ever United States Hockey League championship.
Tyler Gratton’s first point of the Clark Cup Playoffs, a goal with 8:30 remaining in overtime, gave the Steel a 2-1 victory over the Anderson Cup champions. Graham Lillibridge and Austen Long assisted on the goal for the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Penn State recruit.
“This was exciting as it gets,” said Varady. “I don’t think you expect anything different out of these two teams. It was a great hockey game.
“Hey, they got the last shot. It was kind of a spin-around shot from the middle of the slot that I don’t think he really knew was going off the corner, but he shot the puck and it went in. Congratulations to them.”
Playing in its first-ever Clark Cup Finals, Chicago was outshot by a whopping 46-26 margin. Even in overtime, the Eastern Conference champion Steel took four shots, three less than the Western Conference champion Musketeers, who scored the game’s first goal for the first time since Game 1.
“It’s really emotional, you know,” said Gratton. “We just went out there and worked every shift. We played hard and we took advantage of our chances. I just saw the puck in the slot. I grabbed it, I shot it and it went in. It was awesome.”
Sioux City’s first goal, scored by Carson Vance, took kind of a funny bounce.
Phillip Knies took the initial shot against Chicago goaltender Ales Stezka and the puck, bouncing off Stezka’s stick, soared at least two feet above the net. During the ensuing skirmish near the goal, Vance, a defenseman, was credited for the red-lighter, his first of the series.
Vance was playing in his second straight Clark Cup Finals. A year ago, he competed for the Dubuque squad that fell to Tri-City in the finals.
Joey Matthews, a defenseman for the Musketeers, played for that winning Tri-City squad. Matthews was one of three players, along with forwards Charlie Kelleher and Odeen Tufto, who came to Sioux City in a trade from Tri-City on Feb. 5.
Musketeers’ goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks had 11 saves before Chicago’s Eduards Tralmaks tied the game 1-all with 4:33 left in the second period with his third goal of the series and 10th of the Clark Cup Playoffs. Like Kivlenieks, who won both USHL goaltender and player of the year honors, Tralmaks, selected as the Most Valuable Player of the series, is a native of Riga, Latvia.
The Musketeers were attempting to become the first team since the 2014 Indiana Ice to go from worst to first. Indiana had the USHL’s worst record in the 2012-13 season (21-37-6), then won the Clark Cup the next year, defeating the Waterloo squad that bested the Musketeers in the Western Conference Finals in Varady’s first season with the team.
Captain Jacob Wilson was among six Musketeers from the 2015-16 squad that went a USHL-worst 20-39-1, then won the Western Conference with a 40-13-7 record. Knies also played for that squad along with Eeli Tolvanen, Brian Rigali, Jackson Keane and Brady Ferner.
“I told them I’m proud of them,” said Varady. “This is one of the best groups I have ever coached. You don’t get here by accident. I had fun every day coming to work, working with them. I’m proud of them. I’ll always be proud of them. I’ll always remember this group.”