Despite a Turner Cup championship series-opening loss Tuesday night, Eagle Coach Paul Baxter said he wasn't disheartened because of the effort Salt Lake gave.
"I like the way we're playing," Baxter said, despite a 4-3 setback to the regular-season IHL-champion Muskegon Lumberjacks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Friday at Walker Arena with Game 3 Saturday night in the Salt Palace.Few pro teams, Baxter said, have come back in playoffs as often as have the Eagles over the past two seasons. He figures it can be done again.
But while Baxter was upbeat, Eagle goalie Steve Guenette was bitterly disappointed over losing to the Lumberjacks, who were his teammates until he was traded in January.
"It's a shame," said Guenette. "They were ready to get beat, and we made a couple of mistakes and it didn't work out.
"I've been on that Muskegon team, and they're so dominant at home there are very few times when you can win in here. And when they don't play so dominant that you can and don't, it makes the job that much more difficult." The Lumberjacks, a most patient, veteran team, took advantage when the Eagles got caught bunched up on the perimeter on defense. Instead of shooting immediately when they were clear, they were gliding around waiting for Guenette to commit himself before shooting.
"We were successful in just about everything we wanted to do tonight," said Guenette, "but on a few of their goals, we just gave their forwards way too much room in the slot. If you can move 10 to 15 feet in the slot after you get the puck, I don't care who the goalie is, he can only hang onto the guy for so long."
Both Dave McIlwain's goal to put the Lumberjacks up 3-2 at 10:12 of the third period and Scott Gruhl's second goal at 14:32 for the final 4-3 margin were scored in that manner.
After going scoreless for 35 minutes in the middle part of the game and watching the Eagles come back to tie it at 2-2 with second-period goals by Marc Bureau and Randy Bucyk, the Lumberjacks kept the puck in the Eagle zone after a faceoff, and Mitch Wilson tossed it off the endboards to McIlwain in the slot.
McIlwain pivoted, waited and shot after Guenette went down. "It's smart hockey to let the goalie make the move first. It's nothing against Steve," said McIlwain.
After Paul Ranheim tied McIlwain's score just :16 later, Dan Frawley and Jim Paek kept the puck alive behind the Eagle net, and Paek's play rebounded to Gruhl going across the slot. Gruhl held the puck until Guenette challenged for it with a poke check, then shot at a flat angle for the game-winning goal.
"I did have a feeling he was going to come out and go down and challenge me right away," said Gruhl. "The rebound squirted between (Ken) Sabourin's legs, and I just picked it up and waited for it - I felt I had enough time I could go around there and wait for him a bit. I was fortunate to get it over his glove into the net," said Gruhl.
Muskegon took a 2-0 lead in the first period, opening with a Gruhl slap shot on a 5-on-3 power play 2:40 into the game. Dave Michayluk added the second at 15:09 of the first when a shot after a faceoff rebounded to him in the slot and he tapped it in.
A Stu Grimson hit along the boards popped a puck to Bureau in the left-wing circle, and he slapped one through Frank Pietrangelo's pads at 2:13 of the second. Less than two minutes later, Bucyk tied the game 2-2 when he beat two Muskies to a pass at the blue line and stickhandled down one side of the slot, back through the middle and up again to score from 20 feet.
Muskegon had the better shooting flurries late in the second period and several times missed chances at open nets during scrambles or was robbed by Guenette. "A lot of teams might be frustrated by a goalie standing on his head like that," said McIlwain, "but you just have to be patient."
After Gruhl's second goal, the game ended with Guenette pulled for an extra attacker with 1:12 left and both teams having scoring chances. Muskegon had a 2-on-1 break at the empty net and got so fancy Jock Callander lofted the shot into the glass, and Todd Charlesworth's accurate shot on the empty net crossed the goal line too late to be counted as the buzzer went off.
"It was the type of game everyone expected," said Muskegon Coach Blair MacDonald. "Hard hitting and down to the last second."
"It was up for grabs to the end," agreed Baxter, adding his club got the puck deep on Muskegon and applied the kind of pressure on the defense that it had hoped to. "I was pleased with the physical aspect of the game.
"Honest, with a lot of enthusiasm."
And maybe losing the first game of the series isn't all bad. Two years ago, when the Eagles won the Turner Cup in Game 6 at Muskegon, they lost Game 1 in the Walker Arena 6-3, then won Game 2 in Muskegon 5-3.
That, of course, was a different group of Eagles - before Calgary became the parent team - but last season as the Eagles won a second straight Turner Cup, they came from behind in the Peoria quarterfinal, then came from two down in the finals to win in six.
This season, they lost the semifinal opener to Milwaukee but won four straight to arrive in Muskegon this week for the right to do it all over again.