SIOUX CITY | Two teams headed in different directions when the regular season ended will be squaring off when the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup Playoffs begin Friday night at the Tyson Events Center.
The Anderson Cup-winning Sioux City Musketeers were outscored 12-3 while dropping three road games last week. Meanwhile, the Des Moines Buccaneers are playing their best hockey of the season, riding a four-game winning streak.
That is not something Musketeers Coach Jay Varady is not concerned with.
"I don't think it matters at all because the regular season is over and I don't think it has any impact on the playoffs," he said.
Winners of the Western Conference regular-season title for the second time in the last three years, Varady’s Musketeers (40-13-7) will host fourth-place Des Moines (36-20-4) in two Easter weekend playoff games. Game 1 will begin at 7:05 p.m. Friday while Game 2 is slated for a 5:05 p.m. start on Sunday.
The series shifts to Des Moines for two games with those dates set to be announced Monday at 10 a.m.
"In most leagues there are usually 16 teams in the playoffs so the top team plays the eight seed or something like that, there is usually a disparity between the two teams," Varady said. "The USHL is extremely unique because if you look at our record and Des Moines record they are separated by four wins.
"It is two teams that are at the same level that should lead to an extremely competitive first round. It always is in the USHL."
It’s an exciting time for both teams, considering where they finished in last year's standings.
Des Moines, which last made the playoffs in 2005-06 (the year it won the Clark Cup), netted 25 wins and finished seventh in the Western Conference while the Musketeers followed in last place, winning just 20 games.
Sioux City’s vault from worst to first largely falls on the strength of goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks (36-7-6, 1.85 GAA), who shattered several team records and posted the USHL’s most wins since Cedar Rapids’ Brady Hjelle went 37-8-5 in the 2010-11 season. Kivlenieks had five shutouts and allowed one goal in 13 other wins.
Among Kivlenieks’ shutouts was a 3-0 win over Des Moines on Jan. 27 at the Tyson, where he posted 30 saves. The native of Riga, Latvia, appeared in all four meetings against the Buccaneers, winning three while also suffering a 2-1 shootout loss on the road Jan. 21.
Like Kivlenieks, Jan Ruzicka (26-12-2, 2.35 GAA, 5 shutouts) has appeared in each of the games against Sioux City. The native of Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic, finished strong, yielding just five goals in his last four starts while converting 75 of 80 saves.
Finland native Eeli Tolvanen (30 goals, 24 assists) had three goals in the season series against the Bucs, two coming in an exciting 4-3 win at the Tyson on Oct. 28. A Boston College recruit, Tolvanen generated eight games of at least two goals this season and finished his second campaign strong, providing 13 goals and seven assists while scoring in 13 of his final 17 games.
Defenseman and team captain Jacob Wilson (6, 18) is the only remaining Musketeer from the 2014-15 squad that fell to Sioux Falls in a tense five-game first-round playoff.
"Every playoff experience is a little different with each group and for us right now every day counts," Varady said. "The playoffs are a time where the lifespan of our group depends on our success and if we want to continue to play together, which I think we have pretty good team chemistry in our locker room, we have do to all the little things to be successful."
Sioux City has three other players who experienced postseason play a year ago, including defenseman Joey Matthews (3, 11), who played on the Tri-City team that swept Dubuque to win the Clark Cup.
Musketeer defenseman Carson Vance (3, 25) played for Dubuque last year. Dubuque, incidentally, defeated Bloomington in the Eastern Conference finals, a squad that included Tarek Baker (14, 9).
"One of the keys this year was we kept evaluating our team as we progressed through the season and kept adding pieces," Varady said. "I think it started with an addition like Anea (Ferrario) who I think kind of anchored our D core for a good part of the season. We were able to add (Odeen) Tufto and (Charlie) Kelleher at the right time and bring Baker in when he was injured and let the team go, and as soon as he got healthy he jumped right in and was able to help us."
Left wing David Keefer leads Des Moines with 46 points (19, 27). Among the league’s best rookies is defenseman Mario Ferraro, who finished with eight goals and 33 assists.