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Muskie boys gearing for 'huge' games

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The bragging rights belong to this side of the border this season.

Austin Armstrong scored twice to pace the Muskie boys' hockey team to a 4-2 win over the International Falls Broncos in the finale of their annual two-game “Border Battle” exhibition series Thursday night in front of a full house at the Ice For Kids Arena.

The Muskies swept the series after taking the opener 4-1 back on Dec. 21 in the Falls.

Although the black-and-gold got the win, it was by no means an easy victory.

Muskie goalie Darian Klem saved the day with multiple difficult stops and helped the Muskies hold on in what head coach Jordan Sinclair called an “up-and-down” win for his squad.

“There's some things I thought we did real good and some things I thought we did very poorly,” he remarked.

"And it was kind of that way the whole game.

“I thought [when] we got on their side of the red line, we were real good," Sinclair noted. ”We were attacking, we were aggressive, we were forechecking well, creating turnovers and doing lots of good things.

“[But] when the puck got into our side of the red line and the 'D'-zone, I thought we really struggled,” he admitted.

The Muskies, who currently sport a 9-2 record in NorWOSSA play to sit in second place in the six-team league, resume action tomorrow when they hit the road to face the third-place St. Thomas Aquinas Saints (7-4) in Kenora.

Then they'll have back-to-back games against the top-ranked Sioux Lookout Warriors (11-1) there this Sunday and Monday (Feb. 10-11) before wrapping up the regular season against the fifth-place Dryden Eagles (3-8-1) on Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at “The Duke” (Couchiching Arena).

The Muskies have their sights on securing home-ice advantage for the playoffs and Sinclair knows how important it will be for his squad to play with more consistency.

“They're huge,” he stressed about the final games of the regular season.

“We've talked a lot about it," he noted. ”Every game is very meaningful, not only for us but for the teams that we will be playing, too.

"The last game of the year is against Dryden and there's a real possibility that it could make or break them in being in the playoffs or not being in the playoffs.

“Obviously with T.A. coming up next, that's a huge game for us because if we win that one, we've basically secured home ice in the first round,” Sinclair added.

“You gotta win that one first and then you get to Sioux Lookout, you got an opportunity to still finish first, so each game is huge for us and the opponent,” he reiterated.

"But, obviously, T.A. is going to be our main focus coming up here next.

“Our goal is to win them all," Sinclair stressed. ”We still wanna finish first.

“I don't know that it necessarily matters," he conceded. ”Like I've mentioned before, it doesn't make a difference to me, we just need to get into the playoffs.

“Whether you're first, second, third, fourth, wherever from there,” he reasoned.

“But I know that all four games will be a challenge for us and the goal we've set is to win them all.”

As for Thursday night's win in the “Border Battle” finale, the Muskies wasted little time getting going as Jaxon Gartzke opened the scoring just 1:17 into the game when he buried the rebound of Josh Ward's shot over the pad of Broncos' goalie Max Marcotte.

The Broncos upped the pressure from there, however, and forced Klem to make several difficult saves.

That persistence paid off later in the second period when Brady Wicklund dangled the puck around the Muskie defence before skating in on Klem and putting a backhander past him with 5:34 to go to knot it at 1-1.

After Muskie defenceman Jace Dittaro was cross-checked into the boards from behind, Armstrong made the Broncos pay on the ensuing power play when he banked the puck off of Marcotte's back and in with 2:09 to go.

Armstrong then tallied his second of the night just 32 seconds into the third when his snapshot from the point eluded Marcotte top shelf to make it to 3-1.

Wicklund brought the Broncos back within one when he tallied his second of the night on a centering pass.

The visitors pulled Marcotte with 1:25 to go in an effort to force overtime but Carson Noga notched a last-second empty-netter to cap the scoring.

“Fortunately, 'Klemmer' came up multiple times with some big saves and bailed us out . . . but it easily could have gone the other way had he not been there to stop a few of them,” Sinclair admitted.

"'Klemmer' was our best player tonight, no question.

“I thought [Cole] Magill and [Carson] Noga and [Jake] Barker, who was with them for a little bit, and then [Connor] Nelson, I thought those guys had a pretty good game forechecking,” Sinclair added.

"They were constant on the puck and relentless on the forecheck, which is good and what we're looking for from them as bigger bodies to get down there and grind and wear people out.

“I thought, overall, that our team and all individuals were kind of the same,” he noted.

“Like I said, when we got to [the Broncos'] side, we were all going. But when it came on our side, it was a little scary at times.”

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