M’CHIGEENG—The Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) Mustangs girls’ hockey team has made Island history—last week, they played their final game of the season against Espanola and finished with a 6-0 win. For them, 2019 was not simply a good year.
It was a perfect season.
“They tried to act real cool, but I hope and think they understand what they accomplished was something special. It’s never happened before, and I think it’s really important to say that we’ve had some really good teams in the past,” said coach Mike Meeker.
Regular readers of The Expositor’s sports pages will have noted the girls’ team’s runaway season as it unfolded. The only times they fell to any opponents were a few games outside of their regular season at a London tournament.
“I raved on about the game they played against St. Mary’s at London. That was an exceptional team, a top-level Division 1 team like we have here. The girls played the gameplan perfectly and lost 1-0, but they could have easily tied or won that game because they missed a couple chances,” Mr. Meeker said.
Some have raised concerns that the division is weaker this year and that has given the Mustangs girls an easier time at domination. However, Mr. Meeker said that statement is not a good reflection of the effort the girls put into the season.
“Espanola is a good team. They’re a strong team,” he said. “This year, (the girls) played so well that they made a good team look weak.”
Mr. Meeker recognized that one of Espanola’s greatest strengths is its excellent goaltender, and said he managed to adjust the girls’ gameplan accordingly.
“We practiced cross-net passing, one-timers from the side and getting in front of the goalie. If you can’t see the puck, it’s hard to stop no matter how good you are. Our first goal was a perfect example of that strategy, Hailey (McGillis-Prior) got in front of the net and blocked the view, and we had a perfect deflection into the net,” Mr. Meeker said.
He added that they adjusted their defence as well based on the strong Espanola players who could run the puck down the length of the rink.
“Our defence stayed together and stayed back, forced their players to go wide and put them at a disadvantage. They had bad angles for their shots,” said Mr. Meeker.
At the beginning of this week, the girls headed to Toronto to play in a tournament. When The Expositor spoke with Mr. Meeker last week before the trip, he said the girls would likely be looking forward to the games equally as much as they’d enjoy shopping and hanging out in the Big Smoke.
“I think they’re going to stack up really well. That’s another positive about this team. The better the team we’re playing, the better they play generally. They step up their game,” Mr. Meeker said.
At the end of February, the girls will be starting the league playoffs. The games are structured so the first-place team plays the fourth-place team and the second- and third-place teams square off in the first round. However, the fourth-place team, Lively, has dropped out of the playoffs. In second and third are St. Benedict’s and Espanola respectively.
“I have no idea who will win between Espanola and St. Ben’s. That’s going to be a good series. They’ve both got good teams and great players, but Espanola has an above-average goalie,” Mr. Meeker said. “Whoever it is, they’re going to be a tough challenge and the girls know that.
The Mustangs girls will face the winner of that series in a best-two-of-three series to determine the division champions.
The boys’ team had an exciting end to their season. Their final game was last Wednesday night against Lockerby at Countryside Arena.
“It was a back-and-forth game. We had a 6-5 lead late in the game, but one of the boys took a four-minute penalty and Lockerby scored twice and beat us 7-6. Ethan Corbiere got four goals in a losing effort,” said coach Steve Doane.
The boys’ playoff series begins sooner than the girls’ team, with their first game being once again against Lockerby. The Mustangs ended up in second place in the B division after the regular season.
“I’m not too sure what to expect from this team as we head into the playoffs. The second half of the season has been very disjointed and we only managed to have one practice in the last month with exams and all of the snow days,” said Mr. Doane.
He added that the boys have had to pick up the missed practice opportunities on their own to keep their skills sharp. Mr. Doane said he hoped to get a practice in for this week.
“I think the playoffs should be fairly entertaining, but the series are only best two out of three so there isn’t much room for a slow start. (Lockerby) has played us closely all season and were able to beat us in the last game, so they are coming in with some confidence. They have a fairly balanced attack and were very physical with us last time,” said Mr. Doane.
For him, consistency throughout the whole game will be the way the boys’ team can find success. A small misstep like losing focus for a minute or taking a selfish penalty could have major impacts in a tight series.
However, he said his team has a lot of support between the pipes which will considerably help them.
“Jenelle Manitowabi will be carrying the load in goal at least early on, with Shannon Debassige out with an injury. Our goaltending has been solid all season,” he said.
He said the team will have to pay close attention to the two-on-one pushes that have cost the team a lot this year, as well as making defence a whole-team effort.
“If we can keep the puck out of our net, the goals will come and we should be in good shape,” said Mr. Doane.
“I’m looking forward to the crowd and the atmosphere for the first game on Thursday in Little Current. It should be an exciting game!”
The Mustangs boys’ team’s first game is against Lockerby tomorrow, Thursday February 14, at 5:30 pm in the Little Current-Howland Recreation Centre.