Escapee…

In John Marks’ mind, none of this makes any sense.

The Fargo Force head coach said Saturday he was surprised defenseman and now-former team captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) only went in the fifth round of the NHL Draft of Saturday.

“It couldn’t have been something off-ice,” Marks said.

Cooper was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks with the 127th pick in the draft, one spot below teammate and forward Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Marks said he was happy the Force had three players – Cooper, Toninato and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) – were all drafted tying a franchise record of three players taken in the draft. Hargrove was taken in the seventh round by the Boston Bruins.

Still, it left Marks wondering why teams didn’t take Cooper in the earlier rounds.

“He’s a 4.0 student, did really well from school, did really well away from school too,” Marks said. “He has everything you’d want in a kid.”

Cooper said Saturday he was projected to go anywhere from the third to the seventh round. He said going in the fifth round met that projection.

Though Cooper did fall within those parameters, going in the fifth round did raise some eyebrows considering Chicago Steel defenseman Jaccob Slavin (Colorado College) was taken towards the end of the fourth round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

By comparison, Cooper was a bit more well-known than Slavin coming to the draft.

Cooper’s name might have carried more notoriety given he has been talked about since he came into the league at 15. He also had been talked about as one of three USHL players to watch last April for the 2012 NHL Draft by NHL Central Scouting.

Yet Cooper’s offensive production wasn’t what some were considering. Cooper’s second season with the Force resulted in a 33-point season largely predicated on his ability to lead the rush, buzz the net and use a booming hit when needed to free the puck and create chances at the other end.

This past season saw a different version of Cooper. He was more of a stay-at-home defenseman. Cooper did get points, scoring 24, but those rushes which became synonymous with his game were not frequent. Cooper was still a second-team selection to the all-USHL team.

But choosing Slavin might not be all that surprising considering he had better numbers than Cooper.

Slavin was a integral part of the revival that was the Chicago Steel’s season. The Steel won nine games in the 2010-11 season and bounced back this season to contend for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before falling short.

At 6-2 and 170 pounds, he put up 30 (three goals, 27 assists) in 60 games for the Steel this season.

Marks was then quick to point out he believes Cooper could make the NHL, it just might not be as a defenseman.

“I could see him making the move to forward,” said Marks, who spent nine NHL seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. “That’s what I did. I was an All-American at defense my last two years of college and when I got to the Blackhawks they moved me to forward. Something like that could definitely happen.”

Most Wanted…

Once again, the Fargo Force found a way to make an off-season interesting.

This time it had nothing to do with another coach leaving. The Force tied a franchise record as it had three players taken in the NHL Entry Draft on Saturday.

Forward Dom Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) was taken 126th overall in the fifth round and with the very next pick the Anaheim Ducks took defenseman and captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha). Forward Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) was taken 205th overall by the Boston Bruins.

Toninato played with the Force towards the end of the season after playing most of the year with Duluth East (MN-HS), which reached the Minnesota state tournament. Toninato was one of the state’s best players and became the first Minnesota high school hockey player outside of Shattuck-St. Mary’s to be taken in the draft.

He scored 61 points while playing for Duluth East and with the Force had one point in four games with the team. Toninato, who the Force drafted in 2011, will be with the team next season.

As for Cooper, he ends his three-year career by getting drafted by a Ducks franchise which appears to have promising defensemen in its stock.

Cooper, who is 5-10 and 180 pounds, played 50-plus in all three seasons and this year played 55 games scoring 25 points.

He marshaled a defense, which ranked among the best in the USHL and he also captained Team USA to a third-place finish at the World Junior “A” Challenge in British Columbia.

As for Hargrove, the 6-2, 210-pounder was a mix of an offensive threat who could provide punishing hits. He played on the team’s first line, which at times was one of the more dominant first lines in the USHL.

Hargrove going to the Bruins means he’ll be at the team’s camp with former Force teammate and close friend, Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who was drafted by the team in 2010.

 

Check back later for more details.

Look Up…

Now that things (for now) have appeared to settled down it’s time to unveil the second annual Slightly Chilled awards.

Today’s awards will look at who was the Force’s best forward, best defenseman, best goaltender, most valuable player, rookie of the year, line of the year, most improved player and finally, the player to watch for next season.

Best Forward: Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota): There was a point where Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) was on pace to shatter every single franchise scoring record imaginable until he was injured. It took Farley time for him to get back to where was but while all this was going on, the Force were getting consistency from Chyzyk. Farley might have had 10 more points than Chyzyk, but Chyzyk provided an offensive punch as he was the team’s second-leading scorer and was one of the few players who could turn a penalty kill into a shorthanded goal in a matter of seconds. Chyzyk had offense, defense and was able to provide leadership on a young team. It’s fair to argue he was this team’s most complete forward throughout the regular season. He had moments this year which might not have as glamorous as Farley’s but they were important. There’s the moments where he pressured whoever at the puck at the point on a power play and pickpocketed them for a goal. Or there’s when Chyzyk, while on defense, dove and stuck his stick out to tip the puck out of bounds to kill a team’s momentum. All of those items helped Chyzyk have one of the more meteoric rises in franchise history going from an unknown in training camp to being a face of the franchise who has his bags packed to play at one of the nation’s college hockey powers.

Best Defenseman: Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha): This year’s blueline had a number of players who could have won. Cooper gets the nod because there was progression in his game this year. He didn’t lead the rush like he has done in previous years. He didn’t gun for the big hit as he has done in previous years. But what he did do was become more of a committed defenseman. Cooper was deployed in a role that made him more accountable on both ends but especially the defensive end. The shift in focus is why the penalty kill was the best its ever been in franchise history. The Force were third this year having finished mid-level the last two years and fifth in its first season. Cooper might not have had the flashiest season in terms of his points, but he played a more accountable game.

Best Goaltender: Zane Gothberg (North Dakota): When you set seven or so franchise records – most wins in a season, most wins in a career, lowest goals against average in a season, lowest goals against average in a year, best save percentage in a season, most shutouts in a season and most shutouts in a career – you are probably going to be the clear favorite for goaltender of the year or even more.

Most Valuable Player: Zane Gothberg: There are the reason mentioned above which make the argument. There’s the fact he’s the only player on the Force’s roster you can say was the best at his position of anyone in the entire USHL. There’s the fact that he overcame a rocky first season, personal loss in the summer and yet still remained dedicated to getting better and winning games. Most of all, there’s this. Where would this team have been without him?

Rookie of the Year: Gabe Guertler (Minnesota): Rookie of the Year is never easy because there are no clear guidelines for what a “rookie” really is. Technically, Chyzyk and Taylor Richart, who both have junior hockey experience, are rookies in the USHL. Both were candidates for the award. As were High School Musical members Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) and Dave Gust. Iafallo was the team’s fourth-leading scorer and Gust came into Fargo and added a much needed offensive jolt. But when you think about what or in this case, who, made that line go, it was Guertler. At 5-8, he believes he’s 6-2 because he’ll take a run at any player regardless of size or how long they’ve been in the league. He fights to win face-offs, he can play the pretty brand of hockey the Force have displayed but he can also play an ugly style of game if need be. Guertler went through growing pains yet managed to still contribute in a variety of ways. John Marks in just about every post-game presser we had referenced The Musical by saying, “The Guertler line played well.” Guertler put a stamp on that line in so many ways. And he’s one of the things this franchise has going for it heading into next season.

Line of the Year: The BBC Line of Farley (who has the nickname of Bug)-Chyzyk and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan): There wasn’t a line who more or less dictated how the Force were going to perform more than this one. When this team struggled to open the season, most of this line struggled. When this team won nine games in a row, they were downright deadly with Farley scoring left and right, Chyzyk scoring and playing in a two-way role while Hargrove got goals and hammered opponents. At their peak, this line was one of the more unique in the league. There might not have been a line where you had finesse, nastiness and ability rolled into one. And as we saw in the playoffs, when this line was not scoring, it made it hard for the Force to win. That’s one of those reasons why there were expectations of this line. When they were on, they were lethal.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth): Simply, the guy kicked ass in Fargo. He made the switch from a hybrid defenseman-forward to playing straight defense and doing well. Corrin was one of two players – Richart being the other – to play all 60 games this season. Offensively, he was a power play dynamo with 17 assists and he was either a first or second-pairing choice on the penalty kill to boot. There were players who certain made improvements in the off-season but Corrin showed it in so many ways throughout the season.

Player To Watch For Next Season: Nate Arentz. He’s only 17 as his birthday isn’t until late June so he’ll be 18 next season as a third-year player. Arentz came a hell of a long way from where he was as a first-year player looking to adapt to the USHL. He used his speed on several occasions creating breakaways and odd-man rushes to create scoring chances. Some he buried, some he didn’t. But his finishing did get better throughout the season and showed it by scoring a goal in the Force’s final playoff game against the Lincoln Stars. He’s 6-1 and 185 pounds and has made a tremendous change from looking like the typical first-year player he was when he arrived from Lakeville North (MN-HS). Arentz was also on the two-way line with Neal Goff and Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State) which was the team’s second-best line in the postseason. With two years under his belt, an improved physique, speed, size and two-way ability, Arentz is primed to be next year’s breakout player.

Honestly…

OK Force fans. You know the situation. Win and your boys force a Game 5 and a chance at the Western Conference Finals.

Lose and the only season left is the one that involves golf clubs.

We’ve done previews for every game in the Force-Lincoln Stars’ Western Conference semifinal series. But for this one, we’re changing the format. We’ll look at offense, defense and goaltending. Though instead of looking at a player, we’re going to take a look at what the Force have to do right to keep the series alive or what the Stars have to do to end this bad boy for good.

Let’s begin.

OFFENSE:

What the Force have to do right: Score. Score early. Score often. Score at rate like Bernie Madoff was ripping off the Tri-State Area. That’s no joke. Goals have been at a premium for both teams and any team who can score first, as Lincoln proved in Game 4, certainly has an advantage. If the Force can get goals, especially from the BBC Line (Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota)-Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan), it makes this team that more dangerous. We know that, you know that and Ringo over there definitely knows that.

What the Stars have to do right: Find a way to own that first period. As we’ve mentioned, scoring helps. But something Stars forward Dominik Shine (Northern Michigan) said at Thursday’s practice is if the Stars play their game, they can control the tempo. That will be important given the Force are: A.) More desperate than an ABC show in its final season. B.) Have nothing to lose by trying everything possible to get going and C.) Are the kind of team that once they get momentum and build on it, they are harder to stop. If the Stars use that controlling, physical brand to establish their command, it increases the chances of a series-clinching victory. If not, then prepare for a Game 5.

DEFENSE:

What the Force have to do right: Clearing traffic in Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) is certainly a start. Gothberg’s view wasn’t clear when Lincoln scored its opening goal last game and it doesn’t help his case the Stars are basically a bunch of redwoods on skates given their height. Aside from clearing traffic in front of net, another thing to get right would be spacing. Lincoln uses its spacing on the power play but they stretch the ice when they operate in the opposition’s zone. If there’s a way for the Force to make the ice smaller and in Gothberg’s case, clearer, it will go a long way.

What the Stars have to do right: Keep making sure the Force do not get in good position for the rebounds. Stars goaltender Charles Williams (Ferris State) has been solid but if there’s a flaw, it would be the rebounds he allows. It just appears there have been more times where Lincoln’s defensemen can position themselves to not be vulnerable to a rebound giving up a goal. The Force must find a way to take advantage of those second and possible third chances. It’s pretty clear: The Force must capitalize like a second-grader on a spelling test.

GOALTENDING:

What the Force must do right: Truthfully? Just give Gothberg a chance to do his job. Much has been said about this team but one thing nobody can question is how Gothberg has performed these playoffs. Let Gothberg be himself and if that happens, the Force have more than just a chance at forcing a Game 5.

What the Stars must do right: Give Williams help around the net. When the Force buzz the net, that’s when they are at their strongest. If there’s a way to clear the net for Williams so he can make easier saves, they must do it. Otherwise, same thing that applied to Gothberg applies to Williams. Just let him keep doing his thing.

Keep’N It Real…

Even from the first sentence of the post-game interview, Fargo Force coach John Marks was honest in his assessment.

He said his team’s 3-1 loss to the Lincoln Stars was the result of many things. Marks started off by saying his team had a lack of urgency and it showed in the third period with the Stars outshooting the Force 13-4.

“I’ve seen us play better and I am not taking anything away from Lincoln,” Marks said. “But we are not playing as well as I’ve seen us play.”

The performance put the Force in a 2-1 series hole meaning if the Stars win Game 4 on Friday, the season is over and the Force will have been knocked out of the second round for a consecutive campaign.

Marks, during his post-game interview, talked about “a few players I was down on” referring to the team’s top line of Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan).

Coming into Wednesday’s game, the three combined to be the Force’s least productive line with two points through four playoff games with Chyzyk and Farley having the two points. Hargrove, specifically, had been struggling more than anyone as he hadn’t scored a point in his last eight games going back to the regular season.

For Hargrove, who didn’t get a point last night, it now extends his drought to nine games. It is the third time this season where he’s had a point drought of at least seven games. Hargrove finished the game as a minus-2 and had four shots on goal.

Chyzyk recorded a second straight game with a minus-2 rating making him minus-2 for the playoffs as he’s gone pointless in his last four games. It’s the third time Chyzyk has gone without a point in four games this season. Four games without a point is Chyzyk’s longest streak.

Farley, who led the team in scoring in the regular season, was also pointless going a minus-1 and is a minus-4 over the last two games. He does also not have a point in his last three games. It’s the third time this season Farley has had a streak of at least three games without a point. His longest streak of the year was six games.

To their credit, the three did spend time in Lincoln’s zone and had a few moments where it appeared as if they were going to create a scoring chance. The three combined to take nine or 39 percent of the Force’s shots.

So what did Marks have to say about the line’s performance?

“I thought they played harder,” Marks said. “But I don’t think they accomplished anything.”

Survival Of The Fittest…

A lot has changed since the last time the Force were at home.

They went to Lincoln and split the series at 1 with the Western Conference’s regular season champions. Now the Force find themselves two wins away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four seasons.

With Game 3 starting at 7:05 p.m. tonight, here are some keys to look for:

ON OFFENSE:

STARS: Let’s forget about Kevin Roy (Brown), who led the league with 104 points this season and already has two in this series. Instead, focus on Stars captain Brent Tate (Bowling Green) who in essence is everything this series is about. Tate is a physical forward who doesn’t mind getting into it either with his mouth or his body. He likes playing mindgames and at the same time can put up points. He scored 37 points (11 goals, 26 assists) in 45 games this season and had two assists last game. Think about Force forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) and how he has a knack for putting up points and getting into a guy’s head. That’s what Tate can do and he’ll probably be doing it quite a bit over the next two games. Also, be wary of what he can do on the power play as he had 14 assists on the one-man advantage this year.

FORCE: Pick anyone between Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), Farley or Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan). It has been made extremely clear to all three, especially Hargrove, they need to pick things up in order for this team to go far. There are elements about playing Lincoln which suits aspects of all three players’ game. Chyzyk’s ability to transition defense into offense can come in handy against a team featuring one of the more potent lineups in the league. Farley, if he can also score, could do double damage drawing penalties against Lincoln which was the most penalized team in the league this season. Finally, Hargrove has the skill and the size to take anything Lincoln can give and vice-versa.

 

ON DEFENSE:

STARS: Through two games Stars’ captain Dax Lauwers has stayed out of the penalty box and he’ll need to do that tonight to increase his team’s chances of winning. Lauwers, who is 6-3 and 220 pounds, with his size alone can blanket the Force’s forwards which are considerably smaller. If Lauwers can blanket forwards, make life in the corners difficult and keep a clear crease for goaltender Charles Williams, it would certainly make life a lot easier for the Stars and more challenging for the Force.

FORCE: He isn’t talked about much but this is where a player like Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) could come in handy. Corrin has been one of this team’s better performers in the playoffs. He has a team-high plus-5 rating and has provided an offensive depth to a blueline which has put up nine points through four games. Corrin hasn’t registered a shot in this series but fired off six in two games against Sioux City. If Corrin can get points and continue his defense, it’ll go a long way.

 

ON GOALTENDING:

STARS: Williams might have come into this series with the most questions of any player and he’s easily silenced his critics. He’s been right there with Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) in terms of giving his team a chance and stopping shots. Guy took the Force to overtime in Game 1 and survived a one-goal game, a Stars win, in Game 2. It’s clear CW3 is ready for whatever challenge comes his way. How he’ll perform in Game 3 will really decide how this series will go. Eyes might focus on Roy and others, but this series will either be won or lost by Williams.

FORCE: To a degree, the same goes for Gothberg. The Force’s success does hinge on how well he performs. Gothberg has been the league’s best goaltender judging by statistics in the playoffs leading in virtually every category imaginable. What he needs to do is simple. If he can stop shots, and his defense can cut off angles, he’s extremely hard to beat. Having Gothberg gives the Force an edge over so many teams in the league. It’s just one question remains: Will the Force push the Stars to the edge come Friday or will it be the other way around?

Seize The Day…

Today’s print story about Fargo Force forward Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) took a look at his recent drought.

Hargrove has gone eight games (four regular season; four playoff) without picking up a single point. It’s something he’s noticed but it is also something others such as Force coach John Marks have noticed.

Hargrove, a second-year forward, is in his third stretch this season where he’s gone pointless for seven or more games.

“It’s kind of been all year,” Marks said about Hargrove’s struggles. “You play hard, have success and because of the success, you stop doing what gave you success. You wonder why you are not being successful and bottom line is you brought your game down. Then coaches get on players. Some respond, they do good and then they drop off again. Like almost needing one of those things you need on a dog for an invisible fence to keep prodding them. I know it sounds harsh, but we need him to provide.”

Marks was critical, yet honest about Hargrove’s performance. But he did more than just talk about Hargrove. Hargrove’s entire line, which features Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) and Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), has underperformed in the playoffs.

The BBC Line (Bryn-Bug (Farley’s nickname)-Colton) has scored two points which is a change from the 146 they scored in the regular season. Just to give some more perspective, defenseman and playoff savant Neal Goff has two points by himself.

Farley said this led Marks to give some perspective by telling the trio if they play like this in college next year, they wouldn’t be playing at all. When asked if hearing that scared him Farley said, “Yes, it was huge.”

“We all looked at each other and said we want to change and we want to do it now,” Farley said. “We’re going up against the best player in the league (Kevin Roy) and this would be a good time to turn it around.”

Farley and Hargrove explained why the group has suffered such as massive turnaround compared to beginning of the year.

Farley, before suffering a foot injury, was on pace to score 88 points but still finished with 59 points. Hargrove was serving his dual role of a physical, point-producing forward who could be an enforcer why Chyzyk served as a blend of both while adding a two-way ability to make the line complete.

He said what changed was the line feels that it cannot take the risks like it used to.

“They (Lincoln) knows we are the top line and they are going to have their best forwards and defensemen on us. I feel like we cannot take many chances,” Farley said. “Its different when you are going up against a kid like Kevin Roy’s line. We turned the puck over on Saturday and Kevin Roy goes down for a 2-on-1 and you know he’s going to score, that’s been our big problem. We’ve been turning the puck over trying to make that extra play.”

Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites…

With the second round of the USHL Playoffs comes another revival of a Fargo Force-Lincoln Stars playoff series.

Lincoln has enjoyed its success against Fargo this season going 5-3. But that’s the regular season. When it comes to the postseason the Force are actually undefeated in five playoff games against the Stars.

Will an old habit die hard or is it time for a change when it comes to the series? Let’s find out.

ON OFFENSE:

For the Force: The line which could really make the difference could be that of Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan). It was a line which led the team in points during the regular season but was somewhat non-existent to open the first round. That line had two points, which wasn’t a strong showing compared to the six points posted by The High School Musical and the three points by the defensive-minded Minnesota line. PLAYER TO WATCH: We’ll take Chyzyk because his ability to create and destroy on the defensive end could be quite important against one of the USHL’s most potent offenses.

For the Stars: We could go with Mr. You-Know-Who but for now let’s hold off. Lincoln’s strength has been the depth they’ve had at offense this season. The Stars have eight forwards with 20 or more points this season. Altogether the Stars have 10 players with 20 or more points. Offense hasn’t been an issue with this team at any point in the season given the depth they posses. PLAYER TO WATCH: Who else? Kevin Roy (Brown) has done damage against several teams in the league including the Force. He has scored 13 points in seven games this season against the Force. But something to keep in mind is the fact the Force have held Roy pointless on a couple of occasions.

 

ON DEFENSE:

For the Force: Maybe the following statement isn’t a surprise. But defense is where this series will be won or lost for either team. Fargo and Lincoln feature similar defenses in terms of personnel. They each have a do-everything-defenseman (Fargo has Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) while Lincoln has Paul LaDue (North Dakota). They each have that gritty defenseman willing to lay out a hit (Fargo has Justin Wade (Notre Dame) and Lincoln has 6-5, 220-pound freak of nature Mike McKee (Western Michigan) among other similarities. PLAYER TO WATCH: Dominic Racobaldo/Neal Goff. Racobaldo will be important because he has the style of game which should work well in this series. He is a tough, physical defenseman who tries to minimizes his time with the puck. Goff because he will be in that defensive/forward role which could be huge.

For the Stars: People outside of Lincoln may not realize how gifted of a defense this really is and can be in the postseason. They have all the pieces you could need to win games. Its just a matter of they’ll match up against a defense so similar. But this defense’s strongest trait could be what it does on the offensive end. Ladue and Ralfs FreiburgsĀ  (Bowling Green) move the puck really well in that system and it could lead to Lincoln generating offense in its end. Though something to keep an eye on is penalty minutes. Lincoln led the league with 1,424 penalty minutes. Of the five Stars players with the most penalty minutes, three of them are defensemen. It could be a difference maker as Lincoln’s penalty kill ranked 11th in the regular season and the Force featured the fifth-best power play in the league. PLAYER TO WATCH: Brandon Carlson is certainly an interesting figure. He’s been on both sides of this rivalry and has been in enough playoff runs to know what it takes. Carlson will add a presence on the ice but his experience can help Lincoln away from the ice too.

 

GOALTENDING

For the Force: Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) has been a constant this entire season for the Force. From the rocky start of losing 13 of their first 15 to the nine-game winning streak and beyond, he’s been that constant. That shouldn’t change as Gothberg has looked strong as of late. Whatever challenges he faced against Sioux City, he handled with ease. Gothberg, the leading candidate for the USHL’s Goaltender of the Year, is 2-3 against Lincoln this season. How Gothberg performs will not only shape this season but it will shape how far the Force will go this postseason.

For the Stars: Charles Williams has been the latest to emerge as the No. 1 in what was a two-man system this year. CW3 took over for Jackson Teichroeb down the stretching silencing critics about Lincoln’s woes between the pipes. Williams has been steady in net winning 20 games this season and having a goals against average in the Top 5. He’ll face an offense which has firepower across its three lines but he faces a goalie in Gothberg who will provide a massive challenge. If Williams could get the best of Gothberg in a five-game series, there’s no telling what it will do for his confidence and the Stars’ confidence going forward.

Right Back At You…

So last night’s Force-Musketeers game wasn’t exactly the most exciting game in the world.

Force defenseman Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) scored the game-winning goal in overtime giving Black and Blue a 1-0 series lead in a best-of-three campaign. With a win tonight, the Force could close out the series and get a few days rest before heading south to Lincoln for a best of five.

Or it is extremely possibly Sioux City could tie the series at 1, forcing a Game 3 on Wednesday.

Either scenario is possible so let’s take a look at what to watch for in Game 2:

FORCE:

On offense: The High School Musical Line – Gabe Guertler (Minnesota)-Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth)-Dave Gust – was about the sharpest line for either team in Monday’s game. All three were constantly attacking the net looking for a goal. Guertler got one in the first 20 seconds of the game. Look for them to continue that pace but also look for them to get some help too namely in the form of the FCC Line. Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) had spurts last night where they looked good and at times, didn’t look so hot. Don’t be surprised if those three take a more aggressive approach.

On defense: A one-goal game could very well be in the cards. If so, then its up to the Force’s defense to make sure it keeps the net clear in front of Zane Gothberg (North Dakota). If you’re looking for a player to keep tabs on, look for Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), who is easily capable of destroying an opponent’s flow and creating an odd-man rush all in the same series.

On goaltending: Gothberg said after last night’s game he expects for there to be close games where offense is at a premium. Fair enough. Gothberg had moments where he didn’t face too much action but when he did, he was ready for it. His lone blemish was a rebound leading to a game-tying goal. Look for him to be more aware on second or even third-chance opportunities.

 

MUSKETEERS:

On offense: Offense hasn’t been kind to the Musketeers this season. They’re actually one of the teams who gave up more goals (189) in the regular season than they scored (181) already putting them in a hole. Facing Gothberg and a defense that ranks in the Top 3 in the league doesn’t help. Finding someone to replace David Goodwin (Penn State), who is out with an injury is key. Kyle Criscuolo (Harvard) has been a pest for the Force to deal with at times and he could be the guy to jumpstart an offense in severe need of goals.

On defense: Other than stopping The Musical, there really isn’t much else this defense could have done last night. Considering the Force will be in attack mode to close out the series, looking for Geoff Ferguson (Dartmouth). Ferguson is one of the better shutdown defensemen in this league and he could be one of the big reasons between a Force win or a Musketeers win.

On goaltending: Skoff was pretty upset with himself following the game last night. His main point was that he should have stopped Corrin’s game winner. But there were positives. He did say his defense did a really good job getting in front of net to block shots with their bodies. Another positive is knowing they can go a while with the Force. If Skoff can do what he did last night, he gives his team a fighting chance. But if he even gives up two goals, then it might be fair to say the Force advance.

 

PREDICTION:

Defense will be a priority but don’t be too shocked if both teams try to ramp it up a notch. After all, the Force are trying to close out a series while the Musketeers are looking to force a Game 3. When at their peak, these are both solid teams but in this case we’ll say Force win 3-1 with an empty-netter.

Gold Dust…

Words can suffice yet sometimes images are more than enough.

Many images have ran through the head of Western Michigan defenseman Luke Witkowski lately. The former Fargo Force captain is days away from facing North Dakota in the opening round of the NCAA Hockey Tournament on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

“That is going to be one of the biggest tests maybe the biggest test we’ve faced since I’ve been at Western Michigan,” said Witkowski, a junior. “We are all looking forward to that.”

Witkowski, a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick, spent one season in Fargo and it allowed him to get more familiar with everything that comes with North Dakota’s illustrious hockey programs.

Seven national championships and 19 Final Four appearances tend to generate respect.

It has also generated a conversation or two between Witkowski and his billet parents who still live in town.

“One of my billets texted me right when he found out and he will be in St. Paul at the Xcel,” Witkowski said. “He told me we’ll talk about who he is rooting for when the time comes but he’s coming down to St. Paul.”

This is the second time Witkowski has made it to the NCAA Tournament and it is only the sixth time in program history.

Considering what the program was like when Witkowski was a freshman, the Broncos have certainly seen their fair share of changes.

Witkowski remembers a time where filling Lawson Arena, which holds a little more than 3,600 people, wasn’t happening. Then last season came. Western Michigan went 19-13-10 reaching the NCAA tournament enjoying one of the best seasons in program history.

The winning resulted in Witkowski, a native of Holland, Mich., seeing a change among the program and its fanbase.

“We’ve been selling out games for two years now,” he said. “If you walk around with Western gear, you are going to get noticed on campus.”

All of this brings Witkowski back to another sight, a potentially scary one, he had back in Fargo.

He had a part-time job at Play It Again Sports, which has become a place of employment for many Force players looking to make a buck or two. Witkowski said at the time he was growing a mustache making him look like, “the biggest pedophile you can imagine.”

What made it worse was driving a white van with no windows. He had to make a delivery for work in the van and got on the highway where he was pulled over for going 70 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone.

“I get pulled over and the cop knew who I was,” Witkowski said. “I thought he was going to write me a ticket. He didn’t. It was pretty funny.”

Witkowski said Kalamazoo, which is where Western Michigan is located, hasn’t received the kind of attention where cops are willing to let speeding slip by.

Though to listen to the man, it sounds like the program is making strides to establish itself in a state where hockey reigns supreme from Farmington Hills to Calumet.

Western Michigan lost last season’s coach Jeff Blashill to the NHL and replaced him with former NHL head coach Andy Murray. Having coaches with NHL pedigrees coupled with winning has helped Western Michigan pull in better recruits creating pipelines with USHL teams.

The Force, a year ago, had Witkowski as its only link to the program. Now Western Michigan has a few more Force players coming into the system with forward Colton Hargrove going there next season and affiliates list defenseman Butrus Ghafari having already committed there.

It was also enough for former Force defenseman Garrett Haar, a Washington Capitals draft pick, to come there adding to a strong future for the program.

Witkowski is one of at least three players on the Broncos’ roster drafted by an NHL club with the hopes of seeing more guys in the NHL. The program has a few alums such as Columbus Blue Jackets forward Mark Letestu and Carolina Hurricanes winger Patrick Dwyer in the NHL. Boston Bruins defenseman Joe Corvo is another former Bronco in the NHL.

If it were to happen, Witkowski said it will be because of assistant coach Pat Ferschweiler, who has worked exclusively with the team’s defensemen.

“If you ask any of the defensemen who are here now they will tell you that he gets it,” Witkowski said. “He pays great attention to detail. He’s going to make guys like Haar and (incoming recruit and Lincoln Stars 6-5 defenseman Mike) McKee that much better.”

Witkowski said he can see a future where Western Michigan establishes itself as one of the perennial favorites.

Maybe winning a conference title every other year. Making the NCAA Tournament most of the time.

All of this, he said, could help others see what he sees on a daily basis – a program on the rise waiting to shine.

“From freshman year we only had four wins in the CCHA to winning the CCHA this year is a big leap,” he said. “Just staying in the top four of the conference, staying in the hunt for a title and being nationally ranked, these are all great things for our program, our city.”