SIOUX CITY | Special Sioux City Musketeers moments have taken place throughout the course of the United States Hockey League season at the Tyson Events Center.
Consider the 11-game winning streak from late October that continued in an undefeated (8-0) November where nine of those triumphs occurred on home ice. Seven consecutive wins starting in mid-March, all at home, culminated in an emotional ceremony where the Anderson Cup was awarded to the Musketeers following a 4-1 win over Tri-City on April 2.
Tuesday night, the Musketeers will be aiming for another trophy. It’s the Clark Cup, and Coach Jay Varady’s squad will claim the franchise’s fourth title with a win over the Chicago Steel in what has been a battle since the series began that includes Sioux City’s 5-4 overtime triumph on May 12 at the Tyson.
“It’s been two good teams, one team pushes the other, then the other team pushes back,” said Varady, whose squad received back-to-back goals from Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Pospisil, almost two minutes apart in the final three minutes of Saturday’s 5-4 thriller at Fox Valley Arena which evened the series at two wins apiece.
“They’re the best team in the East, we’re the best team in the West. Here we are, going into Game 5. It’s going to be a full house. It’ll be great to have the fans here with all of their energy, but I don’t know if it will be an advantage one way or the other. Our focus is going to be upon what’s on the ice and what we have to get accomplished on the ice.”
Basically, these are two similar teams. The Musketeers have four players (Pospisil, Phillip Knies, Aapeli Rasanen, Brian Rigali) who have each tallied two goals in the Clark Cup Finals.
Jake Jaremko’s two Game 4 goals for the Steel gave him three for the series. Four of his teammates (Brannon McManus, Eduards Tralbaks, Reggie Lutz, Jack Badini) each have two goals.
In essence, both Varady’s Musketeers and Coach Dan Muse’s Steel have four strong lines. Chicago defenseman Ben Mirageas (6 assists) spearheads a defense that had allowed just one goal in a seven-period stretch.
Chicago’s defensive dominance, which began in Game 2, ended when Rasanen tallied the first of the Musketeers’ three second-period goals Saturday night. Even with the five-goal onslaught, Chicago goaltender Ales Stezka has been marvelous in his three games, converting 92 of 98 saves for 93.8 percent.
Stezka didn’t play in Game 1 under suspicion that he had signed a professional contract in Europe. He has had plenty of help from his teammates in terms of packing up the ice, making it difficult for the Musketeers to finish scoring opportunities.
“They do a great job of going to the middle of the ice and blocking shots,” said Varady. “They use their sticks very well. They’re a good defensive team. Their forwards come back extremely hard and take the middle of the ice. Their defensemen do a good job of keeping everything to the outside.”
Varady’s squad also relies upon pressure, a tactic that has been in effect from the beginning of the season. Pressure led to each of the desperate squad’s five goals, including Knies’ unassisted goal halfway through the second period that tied the game 2-2 and Tufto’s goal with 44 seconds until the second intermission that trimmed the deficit to 4-3.
The USHL’s goaltender and player of the year, Matiss Kivlenieks (91 of 105 saves vs. Chicago), made eight straight saves after yielding Lutz’s seventh goal of the Clark Cup Playoffs. Twenty-nine seconds after Lutz gave the Steel a 4-2 lead, Tufto scored his sixth playoff goal.
“(Kivlenieks) has been good all year, making key saves for sure,” said Varady. “The moment when we pushed back to start the third period, that’s the level of intensity we need to start Game 5. We need to have a pressure mindset as the game progresses.
“In Game 4, our pressure increased and we generated offense from that. The big thing is establishing our identity. We’ve been a pressure team all year. We want to make sure we play that pressure game.”
Sioux City, incidentally, is the USHL’s runaway leader in attendance. The 15,496 fans in seven games is an average of 2,214.
And naturally, those fans want to prove Varady’s theory wrong. Needless to say, the fourth-year coach has enjoyed the playoff season where his team has posted an 8-4 record, which includes a 5-2 mark at the Tyson.
“Any time you’re playing hockey after May 22, you have to enjoy it,” he said. “When you start a season, you want to play for a championship. This has been a motivated group from the start.
“It begins with leadership and our leadership is instrumental. It’s built camaraderie within the group. There’s a reason we’re here. It’s because the guys care about each other.”