GENEVA – The Chicago Steel were playing in front of the largest crowd (2,159) ever in team history. Many were wondering if they could finally pull off something they had never done before: win the Clark Cup as the champions of the United States Hockey League.
It was all setting up perfectly for the home team.
They had defeated the USHL Western Division champions Sioux City Musketeers 5-1 in Game 2 of the best-of-five series in Sioux City, Iowa, May 13, and won again 3-0 May 19 at the Fox Valley Ice Arena.
Yet, they could not close out the Musketeers in Game 4, despite having three different leads, twice two-goal leads and once a one goal lead with under three minutes left in regulation time.
The Steel fell 5-4 in Game 4, setting up a fifth and deciding game May 23 at 7 p.m. in Sioux City.
“Tonight was a tough pill to swallow for us losing leads like that,” Steel coach Dan Muse said. “But just like every game we have played this year, we will turn the page on this one and start fresh. We have learned how to bounce back from losses during this year and we will see how we respond.”
At one point leading 4-2 late in the second, the Steel saw Sioux City cut it to 4-3 late in the second before scoring twice in the third for the win.
What was a bitter pill to swallow for the Steel was a sweet outcome for Sioux City.
“We were able to get into some spaces tonight on the ice we were not able to the previous two games," Sioux City coach Jay Varady said. “I think we also caught a couple of lucky bounces of the puck tonight as well.”
The home side grabbed a 1-0 lead at the 9:54 mark of the opening period when Mitch Lewandowski scored his third goal of the playoffs while the Steel were on the man advantage. He beat Sioux City net minder Matiss Kivlenieks (20 saves) to his stick side.
The Steel lead grew to 2-0 less than two minutes later when Jake Jaremko (two goals) scored off a rebound chance from the top of the Musketeers' crease with 8:07 remaining.
If there was cause for concern among Steel fans, it would have been the team being outshot 9-8 in the opening 20 minutes and then being outshot 11-10 after 40 minutes.
The concern would only grow as the visitors would cut the Steel lead to 2-1 with17:23 left in the middle period when Aapeli Rasanen scored. Sioux City knotted the score at 2-2 with 9:58 remaining when Phillip Knies sent a high wrist shot past the glove of Steel goalie Ales Stezka (27 saves).
“I thought that was a key moment in the second [period] when we were able to push back from being down to tying the game,” Varady said.
The Steel went ahead 3-2 with 9:08 left in the second when Jaremko scored again off a feed from linemate Reggie Lutz. The Steel widened the lead to 4-2 with 1:13 left in the second when Lutz scored off a feed from Geneva native Graham Lillibridge, who picked up his ninth assist of the playoffs.
In what turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Steel, Sioux City narrowed the gap to 4-3 with under a minute left in the second on a goal by Odeen Tufto.
“Yeah, spotting them [Chicago] that two-goal lead to start is not what we were really looking to do tonight,” Varady said. “We just had to find a way to get through it and persevere and we did that.”