By Jason Goorman
Muskegon shut down the visiting Chicago Mustangs with air-tight defense for an 8-2 win. Making the historic victory even better, the Risers advance to Friday’s semifinals and will play on their home turf, at Mercy Health Arena.
The Risers pulled off their first-ever playoff win without star forward Miguel Flores. But the team more than made up for his absence with an attacking offense led by Collin O’Keef and a defense backed by goalie Akani Miyambu.
Leading the inspired offensive effort was Muskegon’s O’Keef. The forward instantly applied pressure on the Chicago defense from the start and led the Risers with a pair of goals.
“A huge motivation for us tonight was the fact our star player, Coco (Flores), was out and everyone knows what he means to this club and the work he’s put in to get us to this point,” said O’Keef about his missing teammate. “So we owed it to him especially, we owed it to our fans, to our coach, we owed it to everyone in Muskegon.”
Muskegon jumped out in front of Chicago early with a goal from Taichi Yamada. Francesco Calabrese found Yamada on the wing and he weaved a shot into the far corner for a 1-0 lead, eight minutes into the game.
Miyambu posted several impressive saves to keep the advantage for Muskegon through the first quarter. Calabrese backed Miyambu with a goal midway through, for a 2-0 lead.
The Risers took a 3-0 lead in the second quarter with a goal from O’Keef. TJ Ifaturoti kept the play alive for Muskegon with a steal in the offensive zone, finding O’Keef open for the play.
“We had a lot of forwards playing some hard defense covering in the back,” said Muskegon Coach Ben Ritsema about his team’s offensive effort to focus on defense. “When you have all your players commit to playing defense the way we did and rotations the way we rotated them, I’m really proud of the guys.”
Muskegon and Miyambu shut out out Chicago for a 3-0 halftime lead and didn’t let a goal get through until early in the third quarter on an awkward play.
Chicago ripped a shot that bounced off two different Muskegon defenders, barely sneaking past an off-balanced and outstretched Miyambu. The surprising and near fluke goal, came when Muskegon was on a man-advantage power play.
O’Keef answered for Muskegon with his second goal of the game on a hard-fought hustle play that he kept alive after fighting off a Chicago defender.
“He works so hard and he’s such a team player,” said Ritsema about O’Keef’s amped up play that gave his team a 4-1 lead after the third quarter. “He communicated well and shifted at all the right times tonight.”
Muskegon’s three-goal lead was short lived into the final quarter though. Kiyambu went out with a sprained ankle and Michael Vollmer stepped in to assume duties.
Chicago took advantage of Muskegon’s hiccup with a goal and a 4-2 deficit, less than a minute after Vollmer took over goaltending duties.
But TJ Ifaturoti put Muskegon up 5-2 after he controlled a rebound and snuck a shot through the Chicago defensive traffic in front of the net.
The final eight minutes of the game for Muskegon turned into the Aldony Mendez and Alexis Mendez show.
First, Aldony Mendez put Muskegon up 6-2 off an assist from Alexis Mendez. The Risers took a 7-2 lead with a goal from Alexis Mednez who found himself open for a fast-break off a through pass from Calabrese.
Alexis Mendez tallied his second goal of the night with 15.8 seconds left in the game off an assist from Aldony Mendez.
“I’m really proud of the guys, I’m so happy, they’ve worked so hard,” said an elated Ritsema after the game. “Some of them (Risers players) have played four or five years (with us) and they’ve never experienced a playoff game and now they have experienced a playoff win.
“I’m just happy they got to experience this.”
The win advances Muskegon into the semifinal round where it will face No. 1 seeded Cleveland on April 8.
Check out photos from the action shot by Jason Goorman.