The United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup Final came down to a clash of styles.
The contrasting styles resulted in a tense, low-scoring series from which the Sioux City Musketeers emerged as champions.
Sioux City won the best-of-five series against the Madison Capitols in four games, none of which produced more than three goals by either team. Three of the games were decided by a single goal, including the clinching game going to overtime.
After beating the Tri-City Storm — the USHL’s top team in the regular season — in the Western Conference finals, the title was decided May 21 with a 2-1 win over Madison. Sioux City coach Luke Strand traced the championship back two months.
“We just started playing and preparing for that hockey in March,” Strand said.
Sioux City won the last six games of March and the first four of April. It went 14-2 in the final 16 regular season games with the only two losses in that time coming on a trip to Tri-City.
“We were fortunate enough to play Tri late in the season, three in three, which probably taught us some lessons,” Strand said.
Sioux City took the momentum, and perhaps some lessons, from the end of the regular season through the Clark Cup Playoffs.
By the time the Musketeers reached the finals by sweeping Tri-City with a pair of one-goal road wins and a 2-0 shutout at home, they had perfected their style of play.
“Two completely different styles, I thought, which was great for us,” Madison coach Tommy Upton said of the matchup for the finals. “Sioux City does a great job of being a little bit heavier on the puck and being more physical. They get pucks deep and they wear you down on the cycle.
“They get pucks to the net and they do a great job owning the front of the net and trying to bang home rebounds like they did. For us, I thought we had better pace and we had better skill set top to bottom. I thought [we] did a little bit more playmaking than they did, so it was kind of two different styles of hockey battling it out.”
The close games left Upton wondering about the impact of “a bounce here or there” and had Sioux City celebrating.
Alex Tracy, a Minnesota State University commit from Chicago, had a 20-save shutout for the Musketeers in a 3-0 win in Game 2 to even the series. He was a bit busier with 31 and 23 saves in the next two wins to finish the playoffs at 8-2 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.
“He’s 5-foot-11, so he’s supposed to be too small,” Strand said. “His heart may block more than his body.
“He’s just very competitive.”
Tracy, the Clark Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player, helped lock up the fourth Musketeers USHL title, but the first in the Tier I era, which began in 2002.
Although Tri-City had the best overall regular-season record, Sioux City’s 41-16-4-1 finish was good for a team record for wins since beginning Tier I play.
Dylan James, who scored three goals in the four-game championship series for the Musketeers, was named USHL Rookie of the Year.
Andy Johnson from Sioux City was named USHL General Manager of the Year.
Strand led the team to the title in the second year of his second stint as head coach after having served as an amateur scout for the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
“You miss the whistle, you miss the locker room,” said Strand, who was born in the Philippines into a U.S. Air Force family and grew up playing three sports, but says he fell in love with hockey after moving to Wisconsin as a child. “There’s a lot to be learned from watching the game and scouting. Selfishly, I got to learn a lot from the Calgary front office.
“It was really important for me to go through because it may have calmed me down and evened me out on the coaching side.”
His team remained calm through four one-goal victories in its last seven games.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo from Sioux City Musketeers Twitter