Freedom Bridge…

Weddings. Workouts. Whatever.

That’s an apt description of what life is like for the Fargo Force players eligible for the NHL Draft, which starts tonight. The Force could have eight players who could be taken in the draft.

If they were to be chosen, they would be selected on Saturday, which is the second day of the draft.

Forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) said Friday he was actually getting ready for his brother’s wedding, which is later today and extends into tomorrow with another family function.

“It is a big day for him and his future wife,” Farley said. “I haven’t looked at the draft.”

Farley said he’s spent the last few weeks staying busy. He recently graduated from Fargo South and went to Duluth for a campus orientation before returning to Illinois for his brother’s wedding.

He and his family will be at their lake house on Saturday so cell phone reception might not be the best. Either way, his brother will use his smartphone to check out the draft to see if Farley has been drafted.

Down the road from Farley in Illinois is defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame), who said he’ll be spending the day watching his little sister.

“It is going to be a normal day for me,” he said. “If I get a call it’ll be cool or I will look online. I am not going to do anything special.”

Wade, like Farley, recently graduated from Fargo South and has been trying to enjoy his summer.

Wade, who will return to the Force next season, said he’s just used the summer to workout and catch up with friends he hasn’t seen due to splitting time between Fargo and his home in Aurora, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) actually spend Friday morning working out instead of thinking about where he could be taken in the draft.

“Yeah, I gotta be in Omaha in the next few weeks and I want to be there in shape,” Cooper said. “I am more worried about what (UNO coach Dean) Blais is going to think than NHL scouts. Come on, it’s Blais. He’s Blais.”

Cooper pointed out how Blais worked as a coach and how he’d need to be at his best when he arrived into camp.

“Well, that’s the thing about him,” Cooper said. “He talks to you and he’s a great guy. Put it this way. He’s (Force coach John) Marks. That’s what I am excited about. He’s like Marks but a little bit more intense, all the time. Marks is fun.”

Forward Jay Dickman along with Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) are both in Pittsburgh for the draft.

For Dickman, it is his second year as an eligible player while Toninato, the god son of NHL Hall of Famer Brett Hull, is in his first year of eligiblity.

Toninato, who lives in Duluth, said his family was not impacted by flooding which has crippled the region. He and his family left Duluth and reached Pittsburgh on Thursday where they took in the Twins-Pirates game.

“You know what, I am definitely excited,” he said. “I have talked to quite a bit of teams and it is unbelievable.”

Both Dickman and Toninato will play with the Force next season.

All Around The World…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said defenseman Victor Bjorkung (Maine) will play with the team next season.

Bjorkung, 19, was a late-round selection last month in the USHL Entry Draft.

“We just offered him last week and he’s coming for sure,” Davis said. “He had to work on getting his visa and stuff like that. He got everything in place and booked his plane tickets and he’s coming to play in our league. The rumors that he was looking at other options are pretty much all done.”

Bjorkung has spent three of his last four seasons playing with the Djurgarden program in his native Sweden. He also spent a season with Malmo. He played 42 games last season scoring 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) for the U-20 team. In the 2010-11 season, he split time between Djugarden’s U-18 Elite Team, the program’s U-18 Allsvenskan and one game in the Super Elite league.

Between the three leagues, he scored 27 points in 38 games. Altogether, he played in 120 games scoring 77 points during his time in Sweden.

Davis previously said leading up to the draft the team hadn’t heard about Bjorkung but kept hearing his name come up from various parties.

Those same parties told Davis that Bjorkung had accepted a scholarship to play at Maine but was also weighing options to play professionally back in Sweden. It is why the Force took him in the later rounds and it’s what Davis called taking a pick on a player whose still sorting over their future.

“He’s all set to come over and we spoke with his father,” Davis said. “Now they’re just trying to figure out what to bring over. I just told them to pack some warm clothes.”

Bjorkung has been described as a, “high-end, skilled defenseman” at the time the Force took him in the draft. The plan would be for Bjorkung to play on the power play, which was one of the best in the entire USHL last season.

Getting the 6-foot, 174-pound Bjorkung could also help make up for the losses the Force’s blueline have suffered this off-season. The Force were already losing Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and potential second-round selection Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) to college for next season.

Shortly after training camp, the team lost Taylor Richart who accepted a scholarship from Miami (Ohio), where he will be playing next season.

It leaves the Force with at least four defensemen expected to return from last year’s team in Justin Wade (Notre Dame), Dominic Racobaldo, Neal Goff and Taylor Fleming. Defenseman David Mead’s future is still up in the air with the team which could leave another opening on the blueline.

The returning four defenseman plus Bjorkung and tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) give the Force at least six justified defensemen before heading into their pre-season camp which will begin in August.

Nothin’ On You…

Turns out the chat between Miami (Ohio) and Taylor Richart turned out to be a good one after all.

Richart committed to Miami on Friday and will be at the school for the fall bringing his tenure with the Force to an end after one season, which was certainly successful.

He was only one of two players to play all of the team’s 60 games last season and put up an offensive punch every now and again by scoring 16 points. Richart burst onto the scene picking up the league’s defenseman of the week award to open the season.

Richart might not have put up the numbers as he did finish outside the Top 25 among defensemen in points. Yet what he did do was give the Force a defenseman comfortable enough to play in every scenario.

The 5-9, 160 pound Richart was part of a power play and a penalty kill which finished in the Top 5 last season helping the Force overcome a torrid start to end the season in fourth heading into the playoffs.

Richart to Miami started to really generate momentum after the Force’s tryout camp, which was held last week here in the Minneapolis area. Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis addressed the rumors Richart committed right after camp stating both Richart and Miami were seen talking to each other in the lobby of the rink where the camp was held.

His departure now means the Force have lost two players for next season who could have come back. Forward Jonny Brodzinski, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Richart, said weeks ago he will play next season at St. Cloud State.

Richart’s departure also means the Force’s defense will have a bit of a different look. He becomes the third defenseman to leave the team meaning Justin Wade (Notre Dame), will be the team’s only Top 4 returning defenseman.

It appears, at least for now, Wade will be joined by fellow returners Neal Goff, Taylor Fleming and Dominic Racobaldo. Defenseman David Mead’s future with the team is in flux after he was one of four Force players selected in the NAHL Draft.

Assuming the Force only return four defensemen, the team does have its options. Tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) will be on the roster next year as league rules require the Force to dress him in a specific amount of games.

Though the Force do have plenty of options. Entry draft pick Charles Hemstrom appears to be one of the players the Force will rely upon to fill that void. Hemstrom spent last season in the NAHL and was a plus-19 in 38 games last season. Davis hinted weeks ago Hemstrom will make the team  when he said Hemstrom fit the one of the needs the Force would have for the 2012-13 season.

Another option could be another entry draft pick Victor Bjorkung (Maine), who is also weighing offers to turn professional in his native Sweden.

This also means there’s a stronger chance both Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota) and Dante Suffredini among others could be included in the team’s plans for next season.

Pelnik, who at 6-4 and 185 pounds, might have been the team’s most vaunted prospect for the entire year. He committed to North Dakota at 15 becoming the first person from North Carolina to do so.

It was expected for Pelnik to play for the Force last season but he spent the season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) to further his development.

Suffredini, however, spent last season at Detroit Honeybaked playing midgets.

Down By The Ohio…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said today forward Dave Gust has committed to Ohio State.

Gust, 18, was a mid-season call up for the Force and turned out to be one of the reasons why they finished fourth in the Western Conference. Gust in 43 games, scored 30 points ranking fifth on the team in scoring.

He combined with forwards Gabe Guertler (Minnesota) and Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) to become a potent line for the Force during the regular season combining for 20 percent or 90 of the team’s 455 points.

But it was in the playoffs where the group really made its mark accounting for 40 percent of the Force’s points.

The line, known as “The High School Musical”, led the Force in points during the entire postseason. They combined for 12 points with Gust getting three of them off two goals and an assist.

Gust had said during the team’s first-round playoff series he’d be committing to a school before the end of the summer. He apparently didn’t waste any time by choosing Ohio State.

Committing to Ohio State gives the school a class that has depth but has also enjoyed success in midget, prep and junior hockey. Ohio State now has 13 commits and seven, including Gust, are forwards, according to Chris Heisenberg.

Those forwards include Zach Stepan, who scored scored 65 points playing at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) among others. Stepan told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale on Wednesday he would play next season with the Waterloo Black Hawks. Stepan is the cousin of New York Rangers forward Derek Stepan.

Ohio State’s recruiting class also consists of Green Bay forwards Matthew Weis and Nick Schilkey plus NTDP goaltender Collin Olson. The Force said in a release, Gust would go to Ohio State in 2014.

What Ohio State will be getting in Gust is a 5-9, 170-pound forward who used a combination of speed, scoring and playmaking prowess to establish himself during a game.

It was those qualities which prompted the Force’s coaching staff to call up Gust on a permanent basis. Gust, who started the season on the team’s affiliates list, had been playing midget hockey back in his native Chicago.

Teaming up with Guertler and Iafallo gave the line more speed and three players who were able to work well with each other, on or away from the puck. Some of Gust’s performances drew comparison to Force forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), who before a foot injury was on pace to shatter several franchise scoring records.

Having all three return for next season gives the Force, what will likely be the team’s No. 1 line. With all three having college commitments and a year of experience, there’s a strong possibility the line could buoy the Force which have up to 16 players returning for next season.

Of the 16 players returning, Gust becomes the fourth with a college commitment joining his linemates and defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame).

Out The Door…

For so long Kevin Hartzell was considered to be an example of the United States Hockey League’s stability among coaches.

Not anymore.

Hartzell was fired by the team on Monday after his seventh season resulted in a season where youth, a lack of scoring and the loss of elite talent resulted in the Stampede faltering and finishing last in both the Western Conference and the USHL.

The former University of Minnesota captain completed his 14th season as a head coach. His career was one of the most successful in the USHL having amassed more than 400 wins while winning two Clark Cup trophies and two Anderson Cup titles as well.

He previously coached the defunct St. Paul Vulcans for six seasons where he won 195 games, according to the Stampede’s website.

Hartzell between his stops in St. Paul and Sioux Falls established himself as one of the league’s best coaches. Coming into the 2011-12 season, he had won 30 or more games in four of his five seasons.

This year wasn’t as kind to Hartzell who led the Stampede to a 17-36-7 mark as he coached one of the league’s most inexperienced teams.

Sioux Falls’ season started rough when brothers Ryan, Connor and Mike Reilly (Minnesota) all left to play for Penticton (BCHL) joining up with Mario Lucia (Notre Dame/Minnesota Wild), a 2010 Stampede Entry Draft Pick, spearheading one of Junior ‘A’s most prolific team.

If the Reillys and Lucia had stayed, it could have very well been the difference between finishing last or making the playoffs in a Western Conference where talent, regardless of experience, paid dividends.

Yet Sioux Falls struggled offensively scoring a league-worst 127 goals while its defense and goaltending gave up 215 goals after establishing itself as one of the better defenses earlier in the year.

Forwards Kyle Rankin (Princeton) and Justin Selman (Michigan) tied for the team lead in points with 34. They finished in a tie for the league’s 59th leading scorer as three players in the league had more goals then the two had points put together.

All of this resulted in the Stampede being a dismal minus-283 on the season while racking up 1,020 penalty minutes, the fifth-most in the USHL.

Whoever replaces Hartzell walks into a team which does have a strong future depending upon how players develop.

Sioux Falls could return up to 16 players including goaltender Charlie Lindgren and Todd Skirving, who finished fourth on the team in points with 25 last season. The team also made six selections in last week’s USHL Futures Draft taking St. Mary’s Prep forward Cody Milan with the ninth overall selection.

Hartzell becomes the sixth head coach to be fired in the league this year and the most recent since the Indiana Ice fired former Yale assistant Kyle Wallack prior to the start of the Clark Cup Playoffs.

In all, 12 of the USHL’s 16 teams have hired new head coaches in the last season either due to coaches leaving for college jobs or being fired.

With You Friends…

Fargo Force chief scout Jesse Davis told the team’s website on Sunday defensemen  Dominic Racobaldo and Taylor Richart will be back next year.

The Force had a story on their blog looking at the college options of players such as forward Dave Gust, Racobaldo and Richart. Gust, who will be back next season, told Slightly Chilled during the playoffs he’d hope to have a decision made by the summer.

Having Racobaldo and Richart return adds to what could be an experienced defense which could have a hard time allowing any new faces to break into the frame.

Racobaldo was part of an early season trade with Omaha and his addition gave the Force a physical edge which it showed against Lincoln in the second round of the USHL Playoffs.

Richart, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Force forward Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State), gave the Force a consistent top-4 defenseman with offensive upside. His 16 points were third among the team’s defensemen.

The Force, barring any changes, will lose two defenseman in captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) and Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth).

It appears next year’s defense could feature Richart, Racobaldo, Justin Wade (Notre Dame), Neal Goff, David Mead and Taylor Fleming among its returning players practically giving the Force six defensemen to roll with.

Those six defensemen, assuming that’s what the Force have by the time training camp starts, would give the team one of the most experienced and potentially promising blue lines in the USHL next season.

Wade developed into the stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman many had expected this season and still can continue his development. Fleming and Goff, both first-year players, developed throughout the year with Goff being extremely vital in the playoffs in a forward-defenseman hybrid role. Racobaldo and Mead added a physicality the team was lacking earlier in the year while Richart could be a culmination of all those assets.

The Force will also be adding 16-year-old defenseman Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) to next year’s roster. Ghafari was the team’s first and only tender signing this season. Tender signings, per league rules, prompt teams to dress a player in a specified amount of games meaning Ghafari would feature frequently for the Force.

Ghafari, who is already 5-11 and 185 pounds, will feature in at least half of the team’s games next season.

Having Ghafari would give the team seven defensemen already and that’s not even including the much-talked about Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota).

Pelnik was the Force’ tenth overall in last season’s Futures Draft and was expected to play for the team this season until it was determined he needed more development before coming to the Force.

Pelnik, who is 6-4 and 185 pounds, spent this season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) where he played in 44 games and put up 11 points.

Ghafari and Pelnik are two of three defensemen the Force had on its affiliates list this year who could come in and play next season. The other, Dante Suffredini, played 26 games for Detroit Honeybaked this season.

Of course all that could change as the USHL Entry Draft is on May 22.

The Entry Draft allows teams will holes to fill for the upcoming season or the foreseeable future. It appears the Force should have quite a bit to work with at defense for next season but it’s possible the team could still draft more defensemen.

Out There On The Ice…

Fargo Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) was invited on Thursday to the NHL’s Central Scouting Draft Combine.

Cooper, 18, was one of 13 USHL players invited to the camp which starts at the end of May in Toronto. Eighty-eight North American players (78 skaters, 10 goaltenders) were invited along with 17 European players (14 skaters, three goaltenders) to the combine.

In all, it is considered to be the best collection of players eligible for the NHL Draft.

The combine will run May 28 through June 2 giving NHL teams a chance to meet and speak with potential prospects.

Quite a few NHL teams have spoken with Cooper, who in the last three years has emerged as a possible third-or-fourth round pick in this summer’s draft.

The 5-10, 180-pound defenseman was the Force’s team captain and played a different style than he’s showed in the past. A young defensive corps made Cooper more of a stay-at-home defenseman who wasn’t involved much in the rush like had been in previous seasons.

Cooper finished the season with 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) in 55 games and a plus-16 rating in 55 games this year. He also represented Team USA at the World Junior “A” Challenge for the second year in a row.

He captained the team to a bronze medal.

Cooper came to the Force as a 15-year-old and in his three-year career put up 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists) while amassing 293 penalty minutes in 161 career games while playing in a Clark Cup Finals as a rookie.

In all, he was a member of three playoff teams. He finished this year’s USHL Playoffs with three points in five games as the Force were eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals by the Lincoln Stars.

He’s currently a senior at Fargo South where holds a 3.8 grade point average and is a member of the National Honor Society. After graduation, he’ll go to Nebraska-Omaha and has said he would pursue being a podiatrist if his hockey career does not work out.

Cooper is one of several Force players eligible for this year’s draft.

Defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame) along with forwards Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), Jay Dickman, Nate Arentz and Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) are all also eligible for the draft.

Confess…

Clutched inside the massive palms of Fargo Force defenseman Justin Wade was an iPhone 4 scrolling through a Twitter feed.

It was on this Twitter feed where Wade saw the comments of Boston Bruins fans who called Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward, who is black, the “n-word” for scoring a game-winning goal in Wednesday’s Game 7 victory.

As Wade looked at the Twitter profiles, he saw one of the people was wearing a Fighting Irish shirt. It gave him a face to the slurs and in Wade’s case the realization that even among fans of his future school, there are some people who may not be in his corner because he’s black.

“It doesn’t surprise me because there are people whether its on blogs or Twitter where you can be anonymous so it gives people that invisible shield of ‘You don’t know me,’” Wade said. “It gives people a little more balls to have that. Its something you are going to have to live with in terms of people who are backwards thinking and will say things like that. I don’t think they understand the impact it has on the younger generation or of any black athlete. Especially the ones coming into hockey.”

This latest incident keeps adding to what is becoming a stigma growing through the sporting world that maybe hockey and diversity might not work together after all.

It has been debated hockey is possibly more forward-thinking than its North American counterparts – the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball – when it comes to issues such as those surrounding the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered community.

Hockey players, personnel and icons such as Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke, who’s son Brendan was gay, have said the NHL could be ready for its first openly-gay player in a few years.

But as hockey hopes to evolve to that point it still faces an issue when it comes the thought of anyone of African or Caribbean decent worrying about racial epithets. Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, in the course of two weeks, went from being victim of a banana peel thrown near him during a pre-season game to using a homophobic slur towards gay rights advocate and former New York Rangers forward Sean Avery.

Since then, the NHL has seen other issues such as Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban being the victim of a racial epithet or the controversial decision by Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres and his wife dressing in blackface as they were trying to look the part of music moguls/power couple, Jay-Z and Beyonce.

Down the hall from Wade at Scheels Arena was Lincoln Stars goaltender Charles Williams (Ferris State), who is also black. Williams, who is from the Detroit suburb of Canton, Mich., said he and his brother, Des Moines’ defenseman Wayland Williams, along with their parents have been subjected to racial slurs.

Williams said he found a way to deal with the negative comments.

“I just used it as motivation more than anything,” Williams said. “I have had a few incidents in the past and I’ve been able to put it to the side and use it as motivation. I just try to keep it away from my teammates and keep going steadfast in my path.”

Both Williams and Wade, who know each other well, acknowledged Ward was just someone doing his job and he shouldn’t be subjected to racial slurs whether they be on Twitter or anywhere else.

They also agreed a reality such as that may not happen right away. That there are some people who wouldn’t get the picture even if the flash was on.

But the hope is someday the only issue at hand is the game on the ice.

“I hope for Ward, hearing the racial slurs is motivation for him too,” Williams said. “He’ll probably do better than he did last year in the playoffs. Hearing things like this will probably just up his game even more.”

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 Freiburgs  (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.

My Team…

“Nothing good comes easy.”

Those four words have pretty much told the story of Sioux City Musketeers goaltender Matt Skoff over the last year. Skoff used last summer to train and prepare for what was slated to be a promising career at Ohio State.

It didn’t work out leading Skoff to return to Sioux City for a third season where he and defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota) would lead the team back to the USHL Playoffs.

Until Schmaltz was traded to the Green Bay Gamblers resulting in an influx of new pieces trying to find cohesion in a tight Western Conference.

Sioux City used the trade to acquire defensemen Dan Molenaar and Andy Ryan (Notre Dame) along with forward David Goodwin (Penn State) overcoming a tough conference and loss of a superstar. Skoff, now a Penn State commit, was the rock throughout it all and hopes to achieve success in that role looking to lead the Musketeers to a first-round upset over the Force in a best-of-three series starting at 7:05 p.m.

“I think right now we have a quiet confidence,” Skoff said. “When we don’t play our game, it’s not going to be very good and when we do play our game, we feel we can beat anyone.”

Skoff’s convictions do have truth.

Sioux City is 5-3 against the Force this season. Skoff, who played in all eight games, has two shutouts against the Force. The Force aren’t the only team Skoff has frustrated this year as his seven shutouts were the second-most in the league behind the Force’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota).

Skoff might not have the playoff success like a few of his contemporaries but he has proven to be one of the USHL’s steadier goaltenders in the last three seasons having won 69 times. This was Skoff’s strongest year winning a career-high 25 games while establishing career highs in save percentage (.912) and saves (1283).

The plan is to pick up two more wins and in a perfect world, another shutout or two over the Force which could realistically compete for the Western Conference crown this postseason.

It won’t be easy but Skoff and Co. already know that.

“I would say it matters a little bit,” Skoff said of Sioux City winning the season series over Fargo. “Playoff hockey is a lot different. I know its the same game but if you take out the odds, it (the regular season record) does matter. It is not about math. Odds are playing with heart, passion and will. If you out-heart, out-passion and out-will a team, you can be good and quite frankly, upset a team that should beat you.”

Skoff was blunt when he described his team’s game as being one where it has to rely on defense to generate offense. He’s right as Sioux City’s offense ranked 11th in the 16-team league.

The philosophy could pose some challenges given the Force’s are led by one of the more skilled top lines in the league in Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan), who have combined for 146 points this year.

There’s also the Force’s No. 2 line in Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) and Dave Gust, which might be the strongest line of any first-year players in the USHL.

Stopping high-end talent is something Skoff has had to do frequently this season.

But it is something he expected to be doing in college. He was set for Columbus, Ohio to attend Ohio State but things didn’t work out. Skoff, however, did commit to his homestate Nittany Lions and it sounds like his new plan couldn’t go any better.

“I don’t want to say I am depended upon more but I will say my workload is more,” said Skoff, who was third in games played among goaltenders in the league this season. “I am a leader people look to to make plays and again, I have worked out all summer. I think whether I was supposed to go to college, I was ready for whatever. Things didn’t work out  and I see it as I am here for a reason.”