To say the Peoria Mustangs have been a thorn in the side of the Rochester Grizzlies this season would be unfair.
The Mustangs have actually been the Grizzlies' equals. In eight meetings this season, both teams have won four times, twice at home and twice on the road.
They've split all four of their two-game series. Their fifth series won't end with a split. The Grizzlies and Mustangs meet this week in the North American 3 Hockey League Central Division finals. The winner of the best-of-3 series moves on to the Fraser Cup, the NA3HL's championship tournament, next week in St. Louis.
"I think it's a great matchup to see where we're at," Grizzlies captain and second-year forward Garrett Smith said. "They're a very battle-tested group. They'd love to win, we know that. We split with them this year, so we're very excited for the opportunity."
The Grizzlies (36-5-1 overall) have lost just five times this season. Four of those losses have come against the Mustangs (31-9-2) and their goalie, Rochester Century grad Cole Walter.
Game 1 of the series is set for a 6:45 p.m. faceoff Wednesday in Peoria. Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3 will take place at the Rochester Recreation Center on Friday and Saturday. Those games are set to begin at 7:05 p.m.
Peoria advanced to the division finals by sweeping the St. Louis Junior Blues, 3-1 and 4-2, last week. Likewise, Rochester swept a best-of-3 Central Division semifinal series, beating the Oregon Tradesmen 9-1 and 5-2. The Grizzlies had to rally from a 2-0 deficit in Game 2, and score three times in the third period, to pull out the two wins at the Rec Center.
"It's a step in the right direction," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said of sweeping Oregon. "That's what they were hoping for in the first year here and they didn't quite get there. Then we didn't get a chance at the playoffs last year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), so I think this is the first step. We got that first one out of the way now and it's 'get ready for Peoria.'"
NA3HL CENTRAL DIVISION FINALS
HEAD TO HEAD
The Series: Game 1, at Peoria, 6:45 p.m. Wednesday; Game 2, at Rochester, 7:05 p.m. Friday; Game 3, at Rochester, 7:05 p.m. Saturday (if necessary).
Record: Peoria 31-9-2, Rochester 36-5-1.
Goals scored (per game): Peoria 153 (3.64); Rochester 199 (4.74).
Goals allowed (per game): Peoria 79 (1.88); Rochester 66 (1.57).
Power play: Peoria 32-for-133 (24.1 pct.); Rochester 34-for-128 (26.6 pct.).
Penalty kill: Peoria 145-for-156 (92.9 pct.); Rochester 113-for-121 (93.4 pct.).
The Grizzlies and Mustangs have split all four of their two-game series this season. Each team holds a 4-4-0 record against the other, both going 2-2-0 at home and 2-2-0 on the road. Here’s a look at the eight games between Rochester and Peoria this season:
(Home team in all caps)
Nov. 13: GRIZZLIES 4, Mustangs 2
Nov. 14: Mustangs 2, GRIZZLIES 1
Dec. 19: MUSTANGS 2, Grizzlies 1
Dec. 20: Grizzlies 4, MUSTANGS 0
Jan. 22: Mustangs 3, GRIZZLIES 2
Jan. 23: GRIZZLIES 2, Mustangs 0
Feb. 12: MUSTANGS 4, Grizzlies 1
Feb. 13: Grizzlies 2, MUSTANGS 0
MUSTANGS TO WATCH
• Ethan Chesney: Chesney leads the team with 41 points (21 goals, 20 assists). The forward from Elgin, Illinois, had four goals and six points in the Mustangs’ first-round playoff series win against St. Louis.
• Jack Craycroft: Craycroft, a defenseman from Ankeny, Iowa, is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He has 33 points in 41 games from the blue line this season.
• Reid Lune: The young forward from Edwards, Illinois, has made the adjustment nicely in his first full season of junior hockey. He’s the team’s third-leading scorer with 31 points (11-20—31) and is tied with Chesney for the team lead in game-winning goals (4).
• Cole Walter: The Rochester Century grad is having the best season of his junior hockey career. He’s 21-8-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and five shutouts. He’s been a thorn in the Grizzlies’ side this season, too, handing them four of their five losses.
KEEP AN EYE ON...
• Jaycob Bland: The 18-year-old from Hudson, Illinois, had a solid regular season with eight goals and 20 points in 39 games. He took over offensively in last week’s playoff series against St. Louis, with two goals in the opener and three assists in Game 2, as the Mustangs swept the Jr. Blues.
GRIZZLIES TO WATCH
• Peyton Hart: The third-year Grizzly and team captain had a tremendous regular season with 21 goals and 48 points. He added four more points in two wins against Oregon last weekend in a first-round playoff series. The Wisconsin-Stout commit has 53 goals and 133 points in his Grizzlies career.
• Garrett Smith: The Eden Prairie native became the second Grizzly to hit the 50-point mark this season when he assisted on Cole Gibson's goal late in Saturday's Game 2 against Oregon that made the score 4-2. Smith is the team's top playmaker, with 39 assists in 42 games this season.
• Matt DeRosa: Like Hart, DeRosa has been with the Grizzlies since their inception and could be in his final weeks with the team. DeRosa (24-21—45) leads the team in goals (24), power-play goals (9) and power-play points (14). The veteran has been hot down the stretch, with 14 points in the past six games.
• Shane Soderwall: The second-year Grizzly has been the best goaltender in the entire NA3HL this season. Soderwall led the league in the regular season in wins (19), goals-against average (1.30), save percentage (.949) and shutouts (6). He stopped 49 of 52 shots in the sweep of Oregon last weekend.
KEEP AN EYE ON...
• Cole Gibson: The rookie forward from Eagan had a big weekend in the Grizzlies' first-round playoff series victory against Oregon. Gibson scored twice in Rochester's 9-1 Game 1 win on Friday, then scored a big insurance goal in Saturday's 5-2 win. His goal with 2:25 remaining gave the Grizzlies a 4-2 lead and halted Oregon's momentum as they tried to push to tie it. For the season, Gibson has 13 goals and 13 assists, for 26 points. He has been one of the team's most consistent producers down the stretch, too, with 15 points in the past 13 games.
• Ethan Noonan: The second-year defenseman is a menace in the defensive zone. Listed at just 5-feet-6, 135 pounds, the Northbrook, Illinois, native plays much bigger than his size and has the puck-moving ability to get play moving north and into the opponent's end.