Synthetica…

Days later, we’re all still looking back at what happened during the weekend’s NHL Draft trying to process it all.

Last night I was on The Pipeline Show back in Edmonton and we were doing the same thing. A point I made on radio is a point I will make right here. If you’re looking for the end-all, be-all moment for the USHL in the NHL Draft, it is a toss up between Dubuque’s Michael Matheson (Boston College) and Saint-to-be Mark Jankowski (Providence).

Part of it is that they went in the first round. The rest of it is they are Canadians who came/are coming to America and went in the first round.

Crazy as that may sound, it may be the optimal item we can take away from the USHL’s draft results.

The last year has seen the American model come under scrutiny with a massive amount of high-end players bolting to the Major Junior system for one reason or another. To say that practice will stop would be indeed foolish.

But is it foolish to think the USHL model could be a growing option in Canada?

Matheson took a chance on coming to the United States and it turned out to be a good one as he did go in the first round. It can be debated that it was Matheson who got himself into being a first-round pick instead of the USHL. Then again, can’t it be argued as a whole it is all about the kid, not the system, that can be the difference between being a first-rounder or not?

Having Matheson come through the USHL and still end up as a first-round selection was probably the best news the league received all year. Then for Jankowski to say he is coming to Dubuque only helps strengthen the league’s case for not being what Skip Prince said.

“We don’t want to be a fallback school,” Prince said last week.

Take a look around the web or a newspaper and it seems like the USHL is getting its due from large and small media outlets.

People are noticing and the following is a point that has been previously made: If you are a Canadian kid, why wouldn’t you consider the USHL given what happened this season?

Lincoln’s Kevin Roy (Brown) practically had one of the greatest individual seasons in league history and all of junior hockey this year scoring 108 points, winning a Western Conference regular season title, reaching the Western Conference finals, taking the league’s Forward of the Year Award, Player of the Year Award (maybe should have been Rookie of the Year too) and he managed to get taken in the fourth round by the Anaheim Ducks.

Roy did come into the league with talk given his impressive collection of YouTube videos but nonetheless, he still had questions to answer thus that is why he wasn’t drafted in 2011.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to the player and the route he feels is the best for his development.

Its just that the biggest difference from last year is, if you are a Canadian, you might have one more option that might be worth taking a look at.

Guns Are Drawn, Part II…

Tuesday was Part I of our interview with now-former Force captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha).

Cooper talked about the NHL Combine, the interviews he had with specific teams and how he managed to get it all done so he could return to Fargo for his high school graduation a day later.

In Part II, Cooper discusses the way the season went and what exactly went wrong in the Force’s playoff run which ended in the second round to the Lincoln Stars.

 

Q: Looking back, how would you describe the season?

Cooper: It was a good run. I was sitting with the coaches when they were chatting and Marksy said Lincoln was a worse match-up for us and Waterloo was a worse match up for Lincoln. We came together and played well and you cannot beat a team like Lincoln with a line-and-a half. That’s playoff hockey but look who showed up.The Guertler-Iafallo-Gust Line did really well and and surprisingly the Arentz-Brodzinski-Goff line did well. Then Zane, you knew he was going to show up. With the defense, myself, Wade, T-Bone, Willie, Roc all played hard and put in a lot of minutes. Fleming, who is a Swiss Army knife, did everything. We put him up at forward and then he went back to defense. We just didn’t have enough firepower. Lincoln has huge meatstick defensemen and they have a good goalie, two good lines who could put the puck in the net and there was not enough team toughness where as Waterloo, three lines, a good defensemen and on home ice can beat anyone wide. The guys who showed up held there own.

 

Q: What is your favorite memory from this past season?

A: I think we had a lot of laughs. Maybe (Cooper’s favorite moment was) just the life of the team when were on a nine-game winning streak, Coach was happy, we were happy and were just coming together and it was finally going well for us. Just the atmosphere. We had short, quick practices and everyone was having fun. Just seeing everyone together and no one was getting mad or fighting with each other and as a team, we were just happy and having fun playing hockey. Its what makes you want to play the sport. Going through rough patches and then having a winning streak. It was a relief off everyone’s shoulders and we were playing the way Marks, Byron and Jesse wanted us to play.

 

Q: Finally, what else have you been up to lately? Plus, where will you be during the NHL Draft and do you have anything special planned?

A: I went down to visit Omaha a couple weeks ago. It was whenever Nickelback was at the Fargodome. I got classes organized and visited the medical center and got everything down with my major, what route and I am still putting some pieces together. I think I’ll be in Fargo when draft is going on. I’ve thought about playing golf while it’s going on. I’ve told a few people I was probably going to have my phone off during the draft but my adviser told me it wasn’t a good idea in case a team wanted to call me and say they were drafting me.

Game of Thrones…

In case you haven’t heard, former Force coach Steve Johnson has left St. Cloud State to become an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha.

Johnson’s departure was not a shocker given his ties to UNO coach Dean Blais, who coached Johnson at North Dakota back in the 1980s.

Of course this is just the latest notch in what has become an extremely formidable pipeline involving the Force and Nebraska-Omaha. Think we’re kidding? Just take a look at the following parties.

Dean Blais: He’s the head honcho at UNO and former Force coach. When Blais was the coach here, Johnson was one of his assistants. Once he left the Force, Johnson replaced him here in town. Then of course, as an assistant position opens up at UNO, surprise, surprise, in comes Johnson. That and Blais is still a part-owner of the Force.

Steve Johnson: As mentioned earlier, he was a Force assistant, then Force head coach and now he’s going to work for Blais again. Not only does Johnson have ties to Blais but his family has ties to Nebraska. He was the longtime coach of the Lincoln Stars before coming to the Force. His brother, Chad, is the team’s current head coach and Johnson’s son, Luke (North Dakota), is one of the team’s star forwards.

Johnnie Searfoss: He, to our knowledge, was the first Force player or player with Force ties to play for Blais at Nebraska-Omaha. Searfoss spent two years in Fargo and just completed his sophomore season under Blais.

Ryan Massa: Before Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) turned into a one-man wrecking crew, there was Massa. He was the answer to the post-Mike Lee crisis for the Force in net. He led the Force to a Clark Cup Finals in his first season and in his second season, guided the team to a second-round playoff appearance. Massa just finished his first year at UNO.

Tanner Lane: A former Minnesota high school scoring champ, he was much vaunted upon his Force arrival. Lane never lived up to expectations in Fargo and was traded to Omaha where he flourished. He had more points (32) in his 48 games with Omaha than he did in his 69 games with the Force (22). Lane, a Winnipeg Jets prospect, will be at Nebraska-Omaha next season.

Brian Cooper: Cooper has said on previous occasions how much he respected Johnson and Blais for bringing him into the fold in Fargo. It appears those three will get more time together. Cooper just recently finished his time at the NHL Combine. He’ll more than likely be taken in this year’s NHL Draft before heading off to college.

 

That Heat…

Just a few minutes ago, I was going through some old notes when I noticed something which happened a year ago today.

What happened was Jason Herter leaving the Fargo Force for Minnesota-Duluth to become an assistant. Herter’s departure opened the door for John Marks, who led the Force to a second-round playoff appearance.

And of course a year to the day, the Indiana Ice hire a new head coach, Ron Gay.

Pretty interesting given what’s gone on in the last year with USHL coaches. Let’s use May 22, 2011 as a starting date. Since then, 12 of the league’s franchises have replaced their head coaches.

No joke. Here’s the proof of what every team has done with its coaching situation.

In the Eastern Conference:

-Green Bay Gamblers: The Gamblers replaced Eric Rud, who left for his alma mater, Colorado College with Denver assistant Derek Lalonde. Lalonde, in his debut season, leads the team to one of the USHL’s greatest ever seasons and a Clark Cup title.

-Indiana Ice: Technically, they’ve gone through three coaches and four coaching changes in the last year. Charlie Skjodt was the team’s head coach when the season ended before he returned to the front office. The Ice hired Yale assistant Kyle Wallack, who was fired shortly before the playoffs. Skjodt returned to the bench and then the team hired Gay.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Former Maine great Jim Montgomery remains the team’s head coach. But here’s where it’s really interesting. He just finished his second season and he’s already the third most-tenured coach in the league. Interpret that one however you want.

-Youngstown Phantoms: Curtis Carr left the team late in the summer to become an assistant at Merrimack. Days later the team promoted assistant Anthony Noreen, who led the Phantoms to fourth in Eastern Conference.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Here’s the second team which hasn’t made a coaching change. It may never look that way either as Carlson has been there for 12 seasons and has a partial stake in the team’s ownership. Carlson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, has won everything imaginable from the Clark Cup to the Anderson Cup to the USHL’s Coach of the Year during his time in Cedar Rapids. He also led this year’s team to the playoffs, something he’s done every year he has been in the league.

-NTDP: USA Hockey lost Ron Rolston last season to the Rochester Americans (AHL), which is an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. It resulted in the team hiring Don Granato. The NTDP also lost Kurt Kleinendorst and replaced him with Danton Cole. The program made the USHL Playoffs for a second straight season.

-Chicago Steel: The 2010-11 season wasn’t kind to the Steel, as the franchise suffered through a 9-43-8 season, easily one the worst in any realm of junior hockey in the last few years. It’s what led to the dismissal of Jon Waibel and the promotion of Scott McConnell. McConnell was made the team’s full-time head coach last summer. In his first full season, he led the Steel to a 25-31-4 mark and were just three points out of the playoffs.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Former Wisconsin assistant Kevin Patrick was among the 2011-12 season’s first coaching casualties. The team hired former NHL toughman Jim McKenzie, who had no previous junior experience. McKenzie and the Lumberjacks, despite improvement, still finished last in the Eastern Conference.

 

In the Western Conference:

-Lincoln Stars: Another weird case of the fluidity of this league. Stars coach Chad Johnson just finished his second year and he’s No. 4 in the league among tenured coaches.

-Omaha Lancers: Omaha got the trend going early in the 2011-12 season when it fired longtime USHL coach Bliss Littler. He was replaced by Mike Aikens, who led the team to a second-place finish during the regular season. Aikens signed an extension during the season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: Behind Carlson, P.K. O’Handley is No. 2 when it comes to tenured coaches. He just finished this 10th season with the Black Hawks leading them to a Clark Cup Finals appearance. Like Carlson, O’Handley has won virtually every trophy a coach could win and when it comes to wins, ranks in the Top 10 all time.

-Fargo Force: Hiring Marks gave the Force their fourth coach in as many seasons. Marks, who is the sixth-most tenured coach in the league, already said he will stay this season and looks forward to a second year in Fargo.

-Sioux City Musketeers: Larson is technically the man who started the trend. He was hired May 22 by the Musketeers. He was at Minnesota-Duluth as an assistant. His departure resulted in the Bulldogs hiring Herter and the Force hiring Marks.

-Tri-City Storm: The team replaced Drew Schoneck with Josh Hauge during the middle of the year. Hauge led the Storm to a first-round appearance where they lost to eventual Western Conference champs, Waterloo. Even with an early exit, Tri-City returns all but six players and has what could be considered the strongest affiliates list in the USHL.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: Turmoil more or less blanketed the Bucs this season. Off-ice issues coupled with losing is what led to Regg Simon being fired. He was replaced in the off-season by Gamblers assistant Jon Rogger.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Maybe no team has undergone more changes in the off-season than the Stampede. They fired longtime head coach Kevin Hartzell and in the span of a week, hired former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades. Eades oversaw the team’s Entry Draft and heads into next season with at least 15 returning players from the 2011-12 team.

Stationary Robbery…

With it being the off-season and weekend, here’s a little nugget to take with you.

Remember Zach Pochiro? OK. Probably not. He had a training camp stint with the Force last season after being taken by the team in last season’s USHL Entry Draft. He was drafted again by Lincoln in Tuesday’s USHL Entry Draft but today signed a contract with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League.

The move kind of came as a surprise as Pochiro put 34 points playing for Wichita Falls (NAHL) this past season.

Signing with a Major Junior team adds to an interesting trend the Force have had with former players. The trend being the Force keep having guys who got little if any playing time but they go Major Junior.

For example:

-Ben Johnson, forward: When Johnson came to the Force, not much was really known about him other than he was from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He had five games with the Force scoring no points and decided to return home. Since then, he went on to become Michigan’s Mr. Hockey and this season finished his first campaign with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League.

-Marek Hrbas, defenseman: Hrbas played 40 games in his first and only season with the Force before heading to the WHL. The promising Czech defenseman had 17 points in 64 games with Edmonton and spent this season with the Kamloops Blazers putting up 25 points in 67 games.

-Blake Clarke, forward: Here’s some more message board fodder for Force fans. Clarke was drafted by the team last year and became the youngest player in the league at 15. He spent a few months with the Force playing in 13 games getting one goal. Clarke returned home to St. Louis and in a matter of months represented Team USA at the World Youth Olympic Games and last month was drafted 15th overall by the Brampton Battalion in the OHL Priority Draft. He was the highest American taken and given his current trajectory could very well be a first or second round pick when he becomes draft eligible.

 

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star…

Looks like area hockey fans could see Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer wearing black and blue after all.

It’ll just be the black and blue of the Lincoln Stars. Bitzer was taken by the Stars in the second round of the USHL Entry Draft this afternoon.

The Stars’ drafting Bitzer means the Moorhead star said he will spend next season with the Stars. Bitzer signed a tender with the now-Brookings, S.D. team in the NAHL and played part of the season with the team.

But by getting drafted by Lincoln, it very well means Bitzer could come in and start in the USHL, something not often guaranteed for first-year goaltenders.

Lincoln has been one of the USHL’s perennial powers and finished first in the Western Conference during the regular season. The Stars beat the Force in a best-of-five series en route to making the conference finals, where they lost to Waterloo.

Bitzer’s future has received quite a bit of interest after he had one of the more stellar seasons of any high school player in the United States.

The 5-10 Bitzer went 22-8 with a 1.80 goals against average, a .933 save percentage, seven shutouts and 750 saves.

He was practically flawless in Moorhead’s state tournament run, leading the team to an upset over title-favorite Eagan in a 4-0 win where he stopped more than 30 shots.

Bitzer allowed Moorhead to nearly hang on in the next round before losing to Hill-Murray in overtime, en route to finishing fourth the following day.

The tournament was a coming-out party for Bitzer who in 24 hours won a first-team all tournament selection nod, the Class 2A Herb Brooks Award, the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender and was named an Associated Press first-team selection.

Should he go the USHL route, he has a chance to emulate what has been some pretty lofty and successful company.

The Force drafted the 2010 Brimsek Award winner in Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who this season set several franchise records and was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Year on Tuesday.

Omaha traded for the 2011 winner in Alex Lyon (Yale), who helped the Lancers finish second in the West during the regular season.

Chasing The Sun…

Don’t worry. Just because the season’s over we will still give you the Force fix you need.

We’ll be back next week with a bunch of items such as post-season grades, overall grades of players, who will be back next year and a few other things such as the USHL Futures Draft next Tuesday.

But for now, we’re going to focus on Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who might have had the most profound interview of anyone last night.

“You want to win for yourself, you want to win for your guys, you want to win for your mother, you want to win for your grandma,” is what a teary-eyed Gothberg said 20 minutes following the Force’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Lincoln Stars in the Western Conference semifinals.

With that one quote, Gothberg managed to show why he is endearing to so many people.

Gothberg was one of the players this locker room rallied around at so many points this season because of the attitude he had towards things. He never tried to let the negative interfere with the team’s mentality.

He accomplished that goal by being what many have called “the backbone of our team” helping the Force through the worst start in franchise history to a fourth straight playoff appearance.

Guys in that locker room respect him because of it.

That’s what made the last two statements even more interesting and in truth, stronger.

If you’ve never met Kelly Gothberg, that’s a damn shame. She’s Gothberg’s mother and was honestly one of the more devout parents you’ll ever see. The woman made the drive from Thief River Falls, which is at least a four-hour round trip, frequently to watch her son play.

Spending a few minutes with the woman, you see where he gets its from. You see where he’s able to take any situation and find the good in it. Because Lord knows this family has been tested.

That leads to the final point in what I hope has not been a boring or poorly-written diatribe.

It has been mentioned a few times on this blog about how Gothberg lost his grandmother over the summer to various illnesses.

We all know death is never an easy thing to handle but more importantly, accept. Hearing this kid talk last night, you got the feeling it still is hard for him to handle.

Gothberg was already emotional and understandably so. But when he mentioned his grandmother, his voice was even shakier further stating how much he missed her but how much he really wanted to win for her.

People ask me what’s the most interesting thing about covering this team and it is moments like this. It is those moments where you see beyond a mask and you see the kind of person these guys really are.

At the end of the day, all Zane Gothberg is a kid who loves his teammates, his mother and his grandmother.

Even in a loss, hopefully that’s a gain for you Force fans out there.

Have a good weekend everybody.

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.

The Big Picture

Some people prefer to look at the big picture. Lincoln Stars’ defenseman Dax Lauwers is not one of those people.

Lauwers finds himself wanting to look at “the smaller picture” given the Stars are a win away from returning to the Western Conference Finals. If that happens, it would add to what has been a challenging but rewarding year for Lauwers.

He returned to Lincoln after spending his freshman year at Army. He left Army because the program’s post-graduation requirements of a five-year service commitment would have ended any chances he had of playing pro hockey.

“It was a real tough decision but I made the decision…because I didn’t want to be forced into not playing hockey,” Lauwers said after the Stars’ 3-1 win on Wednesday against the Force.  “I had a hard time putting a ticker on my hockey career. Coming back to this team, I loved it. I have a great billet family. I love what Lincoln is about. I love what this organization is about. We’ve been able to come together as a team and off all the teams I’ve been on, we are a tight-knit group.”

Lauwers’ hope is the tightness the Stars possess can withstand a desperate Force team looking to extend their season by at least one more game. They’ll find out in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, which are at 7:35 p.m. at Scheels Arena.

One of the reasons why the Stars are up 2-1 in this series has been Lauwers. At 6-3, 200 pounds he, in some cases, has towered over the Force’s smaller line-up given the team’s most productive line, has an average build of a 5-10 player who weighs around 165 pounds.

He has used his build to work forwards of any size in the corners reducing the Force’s game from that to being around the net to taking chances from the outside.

When you combine his size, his ability to punish anyone in his path and the fact he plays in Lincoln, Lauwers is basically ‘The Death Star.’

It is a plan which has worked in this series and a plan which has helped Lauwers quite a bit this year. He came back to Lincoln as a leader and as a player who could really guide his younger teammates.

“Really, that first game in the playoffs you get stuck looking at the big picture,” Lauwers said. “And for me, that wasn’t helping me that much. The second and third game I just tried to focus on next shift and focus on the little things. That’s what we’re doing a good job of as a whole.”

Lauwers feels by looking at the little things, it could help lead to something bigger such as a Western Conference Finals appearance of even a Clark Cup title.

Even when the playoffs are over, Lauwers will still be looking at the little things when it comes to mapping out the rest of his life.

The plan is to play college but he is going to take his time and choose a school which best suits him.

“We set a tone during summer workouts and said, ‘Hey we won’t be satisfied with nothing less than a Clark Cup,’” Lauwers said.  “We may be good in the standings but we are always going to work harder. As for personally, I had a great year at Army and had a lot of fun but I am real excited to continue on with hockey and that’s why I left Army. I am looking forward to playing at the college level and seeing where it goes from there.”

From The D…

Today is something bigger.

Lincoln Stars goaltender Charles Williams (Ferris State) knew his day was coming. He didn’t know when it’d come. He just knew when it came, it’d be something big. Today is the day as Williams has the chance to eliminate the Fargo Force from the Western Conference semifinals at 7:35 p.m. at Scheels Arena.

“Honestly, I thought there are a lot more worse things in life than not playing hockey and not getting your opportunity,” Williams said. “Everyday I got the picture that there would be something bigger for me. I feel like you can never get down on yourself.”

To know Williams’ story is to know the Stars’ season, which has been in some regards the Western Conference equivalent of the Green Bay Gamblers. It’s a season which saw the Stars draft Kevin Roy (Brown) not knowing what they’d expect and getting a player who scored 104 points making it one of the greatest seasons in USHL history.

It has been a year where first-year players such as forward Luke Johnson and defenseman Paul LaDue (both North Dakota) have blended with veterans like Dax Lauwers, Dominik Shine (Bowling Green) and Brent Tate (Northern Michigan) to have a mix of flash, panache and ferocity.

But for a team with offensive starpower, a defense where it appears missing a tooth or having a beard is the first form of membership, this was a team where goaltending was an issue.

The Stars had Jackson Teichroeb, who at times, played the part of a No.1 goaltender but there were moments of inconsistency. Yet it was in one of Teichroeb’s consistent moments where Stars coach Chad Johnson noticed something about Williams.

“Even when he wasn’t playing, which was about 12 or so games, he still kept working hard,” Johnson said. “It was something we all noticed.”

Eventually Johnson made the decision to run with a two-goaltender system and it led to Williams, who is from Canton, Mich., a Detroit suburb, becoming the team’s No. 1 starter.

It has been a choice Johnson and the Stars did not regret in the regular season and have certainly not regretted this postseason. Williams went 20-4-3 with a 2.61 goals against average, four shutouts and a .907 save percentage in the regular season.

He finished in the Top 10 among league goaltenders in wins, GAA, shutouts and save percentage.

Coming into the playoffs, it might not have dawned on some Williams was a Top 10 goaltender in the USHL. But it appears now people are getting the message as Williams has so far handled one of the toughest challenges in the league in the Force and their goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who many consider the best in the league.

Gothberg has played two more games than Williams this postseason because Lincoln received a first-round bye. But to look at the numbers, they’ve been right there with each other.

Williams is 2-1 with a 1.62 GAA and a .933 save percentage while Gothberg is 3-2 with a 1.57 GAA and a .943 save percentage.

“This whole series, he has been great for us,” LaDue said following the team’s Game 3 win over the Force on Wednesday. “The second half of the year, he has stood on his head for us and he’s won games for us. He’s saved us multiple times and it has been great to have him back there.”

Spend time with this team, whether it be 10 minutes following a game or a full hour during a Stars practice, and it’s apparent they like each other.

There is no false sense of security when it comes to players getting along with one another.

Williams is an example of that unity. His Game 3 victory was followed by hugs and high-fives from teammates. Even in his post-game interview teammates were tapping him on the shoulder.

Lincoln’s Thursday practice ended with a shooter-goalie challenge and the winner was treated by Johnson to whatever they wanted for dinner. Teichroeb and Williams, two guys who were competing for the same spot earlier in the year, won the challenge by stonewalling everyone in their paths.

Williams, after every save late in the competition, mocked the forwards and practically every Minnesota high school hockey player by taking his fingers and touching the ice before sweeping his palm through the air.

It made his teammates, even the ones he stopped, laugh and enjoy the moment. It made Teichroeb celebrate with him near the net as if they just won the Clark Cup. It also made both goaltenders some pretty happy customers at dinnertime.

What could make for a stronger celebration deserving of maybe two more free dinners would be if Williams backstopped the Stars against what will be a desperate Force team trying to extend their season.

Trying to close out a series on the road and doing it in one of the league’s more hostile environments would shoot the Stars into the Western Conference Finals, a meteoric rise considering the franchise suffered one of its worst-ever seasons two years ago.

“It’s impressive,” Williams said about what he and the Stars have accomplished to this point. “I give all the glory to God and I just go with what he gives me. He gives me strength and I smile with it. The guys work hard for me and I work hard for them.”

Pulling off a two-year turnaround like that would be big.

It would also be the moment Williams was waiting for.

And, at least for now, it appears it was all worth the wait.