Keep You With Me…

Whether its the casual fan, the die-hard or someone in between, there’s a fair number of people peering through NHL Draft guides hoping their favorite team can get the next big thing or big find.

Of course you’ll see players from the three Major Junior leagues. You’ll see college players along with players from the USHL. Yet what you cannot help but notice (if you are a USHL fan) is how three former USHL players left the league and are now set to be taken in the Top 60 picks.

We jokingly call it, “The All our-lives-got-better-once-we-left-the-USHL Team”

TSN’s hockey chief Bob McKenzie released his Top 60 rankings and on it were former USHLers Henrik Samuelsson, Daniil Zharkov and Brady Vail. Despite not making the list former USHLer Logan Nelson has also come on as of late to be what might be a third-round pick, a significant jump for someone who was undrafted last year.

Here’s a look at all four players and the circumstances that led them to where they are at:

Henrik Samuelsson, forward (ranked 36th by McKenzie): He spent last season in the NTDP’s program and if he would have stayed, probably would have added to what was a talented U-18 this season. Instead, he returned to his father’s (former Penguins star, Ulf) native Sweden where he played pro hockey. He did fine in the Modo system’s U-16 and U-18 teams before having limited success (two points in 15 games) playing against grown men. He went to the Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) where he re-discovered his touch scoring 23 points in 28 games along with having a torrid playoff stretch where he had 14 points in 17 games.

Daniil Zharkov, forward (ranked 47th by McKenzie): Zharkov’s tale is appearing to be a recurring theme with players of his ilk. The theme being: How did a guy like this struggle in the USHL going into somewhat obscurity only to shine in a league like the OHL, which might be the best proving ground for any NHL prospect? He played 36 games in 2010-11 with the Tri-City Storm and did have 11 points to his credit. But he then leaves and goes to the Belleville Bulls putting up 36 points in 50 games. Maybe if he had stayed, perhaps he’d still be a potential second-round pick. We’ll never know.

Brady Vail, forward (ranked 60th by McKenzie): With this one, we are going to give some serious credit to Chris Peters at the United States of Hockey. Peters (as he often does in our phone conversations) pointed out how one of the things hurting the USHL is allowing 15-year-olds to come into the league only to leave and develop somewhere else. Ergo Brady Vail. Vail played 48 games scoring eight points in his lone season in Waterloo. His first season in Windsor wasn’t so hot either playing 61 games and scoring 10 points. This most recent season is where Vail really started to show promise. He put up 52 points in 68 games and in the process did something which Peters said made his value go up. He pointed out how Vail played against the top lines in the league meaning he had to go up against some of the top players in the OHL. Oh and by the way, the OHL is set to have three players (two forward and one defenseman) go in the Top 10 this year.

Logan Nelson, forward: Let’s go ahead and ask the most obvious question when it comes to Nelson. How in the hell does he score 62 points in the WHL a league which has four defensemen set to go in the Top 10 yet he only scores nine points in the USHL? Nelson’s transformation could be chalked up to just a player simply developing over a year. But it is still remarkable how he was able to make the jump from the USHL to the WHL and have success. At the time, Nelson’s decision to play for the Victoria Royals was a bit of a weird one given how there were times he did look invisible. Looking back, however, it appears it could have been the best decision he ever made. It appears he could go in the third or fourth round and that’s a serious jump up from last year when every team passed on him in the draft. Des Moines fans probably don’t want to read the following so the best suggestion is to look away. But imagine if this guy stays. Imagine if he could translate his WHL success onto a USHL platform? That probably would have been the difference between making the playoffs and missing out for a fifth-straight season and having what might have been one of the most embarrassing seasons in team history.

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.

A Little Deeper…

Now that the playoffs are close, it officially closes the books on the USHL’s regular season.

It now means six teams have to use to the rest of spring and summer to think about what could have been. The rest of the league can still decide its fate but there’s no doubting there will be another four teams who will soon join the ranks of those not playing.

But here’s something we can all agree upon. This season showed us quite a bit and with that, here’s what we learned from each team this season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

-Green Bay Gamblers: That if Derek Lalonde and that front office is really good at dominating the USHL on and off the ice, we’d sure hate to make them mad in a game of ‘Risk’ and/or ‘Battleship’.

-Indiana Ice: That Daniil Tarasov really DID score 88 points and it won’t be remembered because of what some guy in Lincoln did this year.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Two projected first-round picks in Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College) help. Talent and depth have certainly defined the defending Clark Cup Champs. So did winning the Cowbell Cup. That also helped.

-Youngstown Phantoms: They proved you can recruit to Youngstown and furthermore, you can win there. It also showed a continual theme. Returning experienced players gives you a chance at winning. Youngstown certainly has shown that to be true with how it has been good all long. And its also showed that this Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) might be something special.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: That even without experience or even the best players for his system, Mark Carlson might have had one of his best seasons as a head coach.

-Team USA: They’ve shown this nation’s best hockey talent keeps improving.

-Chicago Steel: They will be next year’s Youngstown. They have a coach in place who wants to work and a ton of returning talent. Next year will be the year in Chicago.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Year 1 brought playoffs. Year 2 brought dread. What Year 3 will bring is anyone’s guess.

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

-Lincoln Stars: They’ve shown us that between Kevin Roy (Brown) and Ralf Freiburgs (Bowling Green), it might be a good idea for the USHL to open up that import rule to a few more players.

-Omaha Lancers: That if you make the right moves and draft smart, you can rebuild and reload in one season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: We saw this on a message board, so there’s a chance it could be wrong. The post said Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota) was the first 16-year-old in league history to score 60 or more points in a season. If that’s true, what he does next year could be scary. If its not true, what he could do next year could be scary.

-Fargo Force: Losing 13 of your first 15 is no need for people to panic about a coach and blaming it on the fact he’s 64 years old. Its proof things really can turn around if given a chance. Oh and as for that coach he feels its, “letting people know Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) is the best goaltender in the USHL.”

-Sioux City Musketeers: You don’t need a superstar, first-round projected defenseman to go far. That you can parlay that into getting more pieces, fighting in a tough division and then coming out with equally or even maybe a better chance at going far in the playoffs.

-Tri-City Storm: That if its possible, clone Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) for next season and pair him with the incoming talent to make them the deadliest force imaginable.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: You can’t go home again as Regg Simon learned the hard way. Oh and toilets are the new pink slip.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Remember what your team did to them this year. Because next year, it’s not happening. They’ll be more experienced and with Charlie Lindgren in net, it won’t be easy.

Shake It Up…

By now we’re all aware the Indiana Ice fired coach Kyle Wallack on Monday, a week before the USHL playoffs start.

As it stands, it appears Indiana will walk into the postseason with the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Maybe that gives interim head coach Charlie Skjodt, who coached the team last year, some more time to work with the team.

Coaching turnover has always been considered normal given this is a league used to feed college or in the case of former NTDP coach Ron Rolston, a professional organization.

Eleven of the league’s 16 teams since April 9, 2011 have replaced their coaches due to coaches moving on to another position or because their teams have made firings. The five clubs with no changes are Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Lincoln, Sioux Falls and Waterloo.

Wallack’s dismissal marks the sixth time this season a USHL franchise has fired its coach. Some wonder what affect will this latest move will have on a team which could go far in the post-season.

No one knows but what we do know is how the other moves worked out. Here’s a look back at the team’s that made changes behind the bench and what’s happened so far:

-Omaha Lancers:

Fired: Bliss Littler

Replaced With: Mike Aikens

The Result: Omaha comes into this weekend a point out of first place in the West and are  guaranteed a first-round bye if they win this weekend. It it is a major turnaround compared to how the season started. Omaha had trouble scoring goals relying on a young defense and a rookie goaltender to win games. Thanks to some moves and trades – actually made by Littler – this team appears geared to go the distance in the playoffs.

 

-Tri-City Storm:

Fired: Drew Schoneck

Replaced With: Josh Hauge

The Result: Hauge helped Tri-City make up some ground as they’ve clinched a playoff spot where they will either play Waterloo or Fargo in the first round. Hauge’s wide-open style of hockey has seen the Storm get wins over squads like the Force to name a few. A stronger offensive style accompanied by goaltender Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay/Minnesota) makes this team a likable option to pull off either a first-round upset or at least a first-round heartattack.

 

-Muskegon Lumberjacks

Fired: Kevin Patrick

Replaced With: Jim McKenzie

The Result: Muskegon still suffered through a tough year but did show some signs of a turnaround. It seems like every time they play the Green Bays of the world, they do not look bad by any means. McKenzie’s real test will come this off-season when he tries to build a team through the drafts.

 

-Des Moines Buccaneers

Fired: Regg Simon

Replaced With: Graham Johnson (interim)

The Result: Simon’s firing came not that long ago so its really hard to say long-term what the impact will be. But for now, a 12-game losing streak isn’t exactly a good thing and considering Omaha and Indiana, which play Des Moines this weekend, have something to prove it could be a while before this streak is snapped.

 

-Indiana Ice

Fired: Kyle Wallack

Replaced With: Charlie Skjodt

The Result: At least with Skjodt, you get someone who is familiar with the inner workings of the franchise, the Eastern Conference and the playoffs. What happens in the playoffs remains to be seen.

Please Ask For Help…

With four weeks left, it’s becoming clearer who the front runners are for postseason awards.

But what about the Goaltender of the Year award? It isn’t like Forward of the Year where we’ve seen Lincoln’s Kevin Roy (Brown) dominate the league and have a legitimate chance at scoring 100 points in a season.

And as we saw yesterday, it isn’t like Defenseman of the Year where it’s been a two-man race all year. We’ve seen multiple goaltenders who could lay claim to being the league’s best this season.

Now it’s time to find out, who might have the best chance of walking away as goaltender of the year.

 

-Adam Wilcox, Tri-City (Minnesota): Tri-City hasn’t officially clinched a playoff spot. Though it still hasn’t stopped some coaches from thinking what would happened if they were to face Wilcox and the Storm in a three-game series. Force coach John Marks admitted a few weeks ago, he’s already thought about it. Wilcox, who was acquired in a trade with Green Bay, has turned Tri-City into a team who could walk away with stealing a first-round series. Wilcox is 16-16 with Tri-City but altogether is 23-18 with a 2.76 GAA and a .916 save percentage. Wilcox has had to make up for his team suffering injuries on the blue line along with a change in philosophy once coach Josh Hauge was hired. We’ve already listed Wilcox as an MVP candidate because what he’s done has been valuable. If its not for him, Tri-City might not be in the running for a playoff spot. With him, however, they’re are in the running for stealing at least one series and maybe more.

-Jon Gillies, Indiana: Gillies has made Indiana more than just an offensively-gifted team with the way he’s played. He’s used his hulking 6-5, 215-pound frame be a durable wall which has withstood the season. Gillies is second in the league in minutes played and leads the league with 28 wins. He’s first in saves, third in save percentage and eighth in GAA. The East has been a three-team race for second place and Indiana holds the edge by three points with two weekends left. How Indiana does over the next month will largely depend upon how Gillies is playing. Like Wilcox, he’s been an MVP candidate earlier in the season. All Gillies has done this season is become one of the league’s premier netminders, pose a realistic threat to Green Bay and boost his stock for this summer’s upcoming NHL Draft. That’s not a bad year by any means.

-Ryan McKay, Green Bay (Miami (Ohio)): McKay, once again, is putting up the kind of numbers that can’t be ignored. He’s 25-4-3 with a 2.21 GAA, and a .921 save percentage for what is statistically the USHL’s best defense. He leads the league in GAA, he’s tied for first in save percentage, he’s tied for third in wins and is the only goaltender in the league with at least 30 starts to give up 70 or fewer goals. McKay has three seasons of 14 or more wins. If he wins his next start, it will be a career-high in wins. McKay’s numbers have always been solid and the results (one Clark Cup title and a Clark Cup appearance last season) cannot be debated. It appears he’s on route to lead Green Bay back to another Clark Cup appearance. Yet the question remains. In a year where we’ve seen so many good goaltenders, does McKay finally get his due?

-Matthew O’Connor, Youngstown (Boston University): So many things have gone well for Youngstown this season. The Phantoms have one of the league’s best No. 1 line combinations, a promising young coach in Anthony Noreen and a goaltender like O’Connor. O’Connor, compared to how he started, has cooled off a bit but still has Youngstown in a nice position heading into the playoffs. No goaltender has played more than O’Connor who has logged 2,778 minutes. His 27 wins are second in the league and he is second in the league in saves. O’Connor’s season comes when McKay is putting up record-setting numbers and Gillies is showing what the hype is all about. What O’Connor has done isn’t forgotten, but to a degree, it has been overshadowed. Though if Youngstown can have a strong playoff run, maybe he gets more limelight.

-Zane Gothberg, Fargo (North Dakota): Where do we start? Is the league-leading seven shutouts? Is it that he has as many franchise records as he does shutouts? Is it the fact he’s tied with McKay for first place in the league in save percentage (.921) or his 25 wins are tied for third? Or could it be his 2.23 GAA is the second-lowest in the league or is it that among league goalies with at least 40 starts he has given up 98 goals, which is the fewest amount for those who qualify for that category? Gothberg came into this season with questions regarding if he could handle being a No. 1 in the USHL. He’s certainly answered those questions and has helped his team overcome a torrid start where they lost 13 of their first 15 games. Since then, Gothberg has lost nine times since January showing he’s going to be tough down the stretch. He’s statistically been the best goaltender in the Western Conference. He’s arguably has the strongest stats of any goaltender in the entire league when looking at his overall workload. Will it be enough for him to win the league’s Goaltender of the Year award?

 

VERDICT: This really is a tough one to answer. If we narrowed it down to three guys, McKay, Wilcox and Gothberg would all advance. McKay advances because his consistency cannot be argued. Wilcox because he means more to his team than anyone else on this list. Gothberg because he’s been the backbone of a team which started slow but has really come on since January to be a postseason threat. Take Gothberg away from this for a second. Remember, Wilcox and McKay were actually a two-man tandem for last season and part of this year. McKay is the reason why Green Bay could free up Wilcox for a trade. So you have to ask, who is better in this case? Gamblers management went with McKay over Wilcox. We are going to risk drawing their ire by saying that for the purposes of this discussion, we take Wilcox because he has less to work with compared to McKay and has made Tri-City a dangerous proposition in a three-game series. Now as for Gothberg and Wilcox, that’s another tough one. Even head-to-head, they’re tied at 3-3 this season. We’re going to risk drawing more ire. This time from the Force because what you have to ask is this. Could the Force make the playoffs without Gothberg? It could be dicey but, yes. Could the Storm make the playoffs without Wilcox? No. That’s enough for us to say Adam Wilcox is our frontrunner for who will win the USHL’s Goaltender of the Year.

 

NEXT: Rookie of the Year

I Got You…

A lot has changed the last time we looked at the favorites for specific USHL Awards but we’re back one more time before the regular season has come to an end.

There are still the usual faces you’d expect in the Player of the Year race but there are some who have made strides over the last month or so and have earned consideration. Same can be said for other awards as well.

We’ll take a look at the other awards later in the week but for now let’s look at the candidates for Player of the Year.

 

-Player of the Year:

Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln Stars (Brown): With 90 points (47 goals, 43 assists) in 53 games, there’s no doubt he’s having the best individual campaign this year and maybe one of the best in the history of the league. With seven games left, he has to score 10 points to reach the century mark. Given the year Roy’s had it is extremely possible he could pull that off. He’s also helped the Stars to the third best record in the USHL and one point within first place in the Western Conference. Let’s take away what his season has done in context to his team’s performances. Roy is having the kind of year that will go down in USHL record books. It is also the kind of season that could perhaps dissipate a few myths and beliefs about the USHL not being enough of a high-scoring league.

Mike Ambrosia, forward, Youngstown Phantoms (Princeton): Youngstown has had points this year where it has teetered between being a top team in the East or a solid team in the East. The Phantoms are tied for second in the Eastern Conference and barring an epic collapse, will host at least one playoff round. Ambrosia’s role in this has been that of a playmaker. His 44 assists – second in the league – have helped scorers like Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) and J.T. Steinglein (UMass-Lowell) to having solid seasons. What Ambrosia has done in this comeback season cannot be overlooked. It might be easy to forget but Youngstown was fighting for a playoff spot this time last year. Youngstown fell a point short of qualifying but was bringing back 14 players plus most of its coaching staff and has proven what experience can do for a team. Ambrosia, a second-year player, has been an embodiment of how the experience can pay off.

Andy Welinski, defenseman, Green Bay Gambers (Minnesota-Duluth): A historic season for his team, an extremely high plus/minus total (+35), he’s fourth among USHL defensemen in scoring and he’s captaining a team which appears it hasn’t lost focus despite its dominance. That is what Welinski has accomplished this season and don’t think he can’t accomplish more when the season ends. And by that we mean a Clark Cup along with a few individual accolades. The superlatives could continue with Welinski as there’s a real debate among scouts and league pundits regarding if he is the best player in the league right now. He has the tools, the size, the talent and everything else that comes with a dominant player. Or, in truth, a complete player.

Daniil Tarasov, forward, Indiana Ice: Before we get into why he’s on this list, let’s get into why he’s just now getting on the list. Indiana is certainly a Jekyll-Hyde team where one week, it can be the most dominant force on skates. The kind of team that appears to be so balanced it could pose problems for just about anyone in the league. Then there are weeks where they’ll look lost against teams it should be beating. That said, the one constant in all of this has been Tarasov. Tarasov has withstanded inconsistency, younger teammates and the expectations of being a top-flight player to prove last season was not a fluke. His 76 points (41 goals, 35 assists) in 54 games is second in the USHL only to Roy, who is just having the season of a lifetime. Tarasov had 75 points in 57 games playing with high-end teammates in Blake Coleman (now at Miami (Ohio)) and Brian Ferlin (now at Cornell). He’s been that leader on offense this year and has proved he can be the centerpiece of an attack.

Adam Wilcox, goaltender, Tri-City Storm (Minnesota): There have been a few goaltenders put in this spot. Youngstown’s Matthew O’Connor (Boston University) was once here. So was Indiana’s Jon Gillies (Northeastern), who could end up back in this spot. There’s even a legitimate argument one can make about Green Bay’s Ryan McKay or Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota). Yet when you look at Wilcox, you can’t help but realize he could mean more to his team’s playoff chances than anyone else in the league right now. Tri-City is two points clear – or one game – of the sixth and final playoff spot over Des Moines. Wilcox has had his ups and downs since being traded to Tri-City going 15-15 with a 2.89 GAA but we all saw during his time in Green Bay, scoring on him isn’t easy. Wilcox has won three of his last four starts and those have come against Omaha and Fargo, two of the better teams in the Western Conference. Face it. Tri-City’s playoff possibilities hinge on Wilcox. If they get in, there’s a strong chance they could upset someone because if that guy needs to win two games, he can do it. He’s been through a playoff race before albeit under different circumstances with Green Bay last season.

 

VERDICT: It’s tough. Roy is having the best season. Ambrosia is the best example of what his team has stood for. Welinski is the best player on the best team. Tarasov is having one of the best seasons in the league while Wilcox is his team’s best chance at making the playoffs this season.

We will go with Roy, for now, because what he’s doing hasn’t been done in this league in a long time.

 

TOMORROW’S AWARD: Forward of the Year

Heart Skipped A Beat…

Certainly there was a lot that went on during the Force’s 2-0 win on Friday over Western Conference rival Des Moines.

Here’s a look back at what you might have missed from last night’s game.

The Playoffs: WIth the win, the Force clinched their fourth playoff spot in as many seasons. Black and Blue sit in fourth place and are out of third by one point. Waterloo sits in third but has played two fewer games than the Force meaning it could take a little assistance to get the No. 3 seed. The Force hold a 13-point lead in the standings over Tri-City for the fourth spot meaning they would get home ice advantage. A Force win coupled with a Storm loss tonight means the Force could lose every game for the rest of the regular season and still be guaranteed home ice in the first round.

Zane Gothberg: Gothberg (North Dakota) did get his second straight shutout which is an accomplishment by itself. But this was his sixth shutout of the season doubling the previous record for blankings in a season by former Roseau star Mike Lee, who is now at St. Cloud State. It adds to what has been really one of the more impressive individual seasons in this team’s history. Gothberg is 23-14-4 record a 2.29 GAA and a .919 save percentage putting him in the Top 5 in just about every goaltending category of relevance this season. Oh and as for the shutout thing, he leads the league in that category too.

Justin Wade: Wade (Notre Dame) had two assists for what was his first-ever multi-point game in the USHL. His game is designed to prevent offense more than generate it but Wade is having a banner year compared to last season when it comes to points. Granted he only has six point (1 goal, 5 assists) but he’s become the team’s No. 1 shutdown defenseman and has a plus-12 rating this season. Though since January, Wade’s rating is a plus-17.

-Dominic Toninato: Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) made his Force debut last night wearing the No. 9. The former Duluth East star didn’t register a point but he did see ice time in his first game with the team. Toninato will play tonight but it is unclear on if he will play again for the Force this season. He’ll be with the team for sure next year.

-Jay Dickman: Speaking of Minnesota high school players, Dickman keeps showing why it was a good idea to go out and get him. Dickman picked up an assist last night giving him five points in eight games. He was known more as a scorer in high school. He led Class 2A in goals this past season but the Force probably aren’t complaining about the opportunities he’s created in his short term with the team.

Air Force Ones…

Life was easy for Chad Demers this time a year ago.

He woke up at 9 a.m. Got some breakfast. Did his workouts. Played some hockey and that was about it.

Demers is still playing hockey and getting in his workouts. Just everything else has changed. Going to the Air Force Academy tends to do that. Demers recently said he is enjoying his freshman year at Air Force but admits its a change when he spent last season in Fargo.

“It’s a full 180,” he said of the change between Fargo and the Air Force Academy. “This year I am up by 6 a.m. and at least three days a week a little bit earlier than that for military duties you have to do. Then you have all-day school at one of the top academic schools in the nation. Homework here isn’t a slouch and there is a benefit to keeping your grades up.”

Demers said school is going well. As for the hockey thing, that’s going pretty well too.

Air Force is enjoying one of the better seasons in college hockey this year having gone 21-10-7 and over the weekend won the Atlantic Hockey Association regular season title with Demers playing a role.

Demers is the team’s fifth-leading scorer with 24 points (8 goals, 16 assists) in 38 games this season.

Air Force opens the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament against No. 1 Boston College on Saturday. He is one of three former Force players – forward Cole Gunner and Dan Weissenhofer – who will play for Air Force this weekend.

“I’d say the biggest adjustment is the strength and physicality of the players,” Demers said about going from the USHL to college hockey. “Here you are playing against older guys. Last year you went up against guys who were 16 to 20 and the guys who are 19 to 24 are built like men.”

Demers showed last season in Fargo he could make the jump.

Coming into his third season with the Force, Demers 66 games – six games more than a full USHL schedule – and was told by the coaching staff if he wanted to be traded to the NAHL to get more exposure they’d do it.

He declined and opted to stay in Fargo having one of the better season in the league scoring 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) in 51 games. Demers was also named team captain and led the Force to the second round of the playoffs.

Demers started getting attention from various schools and ultimately committed to Air Force where he’s with former teammates in Weissenhofer and Gunner, who are also having success.

Gunner, who spent last season in Chicago and Tri-City, is tied for third on the team in points with 28 having scored eight goals and 20 assists. Weissenhofer, who’s lone year in the USHL came with the Force, has seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) in 34 games.

“Freshman year is tough to always to put things in perspective because they are restricted as far as leaving base and they are under more scrutiny than everyone else,” said Air Force captain and Fargo native Paul Weisgarber. “Lots of times freshmen go through lulls but he hasn’t and he’s done extremely well. He’s on our top line and was playing right away. He’s made the transition with ease.”

Weisgarber helped recruit Demers to Air Force. Weisgarber’s mother was a teacher at Fargo South which is where many of the Force players attend high school.

Demers said Weisgarber has helped him make the transition into the Air Force Academy.

What has also helped is talking about memories from back home. Demers laughed a little bit when he talked about how he holds it over Weisgarber about Grafton-Park River eliminating Fargo South from the North Dakota state hockey tournament.

Demers, who was the captain at Grafton-Park River, won a state championship. His alma mater was recently in the finals where it lost to Fargo North.

He talked prior to the state tournament and had a feeling the Spoilers could have a good tournament run.

“My little brother, Joey, is captain of the team,” said Demers, who was an all-state selection in football and hockey in high school. “Him and I talk a lot. I listened to their regional game on the radio and about had a heart attack. They won in triple overtime so that was great.”

Who Gon Stop Me…

Trying to win a state title is enough motivation but getting more never hurts.

Breck forward Grant Opperman (Dartmouth) said after his team’s 7-0 win on Wednesday over Duluth Marshall in the first round of the Minnesota state hockey tournament he and his teammates got a chance to listen to a speaker who served overseas in Iraq.

He talked about how the speaker and his platoon were on duty and the platoon leader was seriously wounded. Then a grenade was thrown at the group. The platoon leader sacrificed himself taking the grenade then taking bits of shrapnel throughout his body.

“Hearing about how a guy was willing to sacrifice himself said a lot,” Opperman said. “It made us realize as a team that if a guy can take a grenade, one of us can take a puck to the chest, the leg, the balls, wherever.”

Opperman had a goal and two assists in the win showing the speech really struck a chord with him.

Listening to what others have had to say has been a big theme for Opperman this season, who will join the Tri-City Storm following the end of the state tournament. Opperman signed with Tri-City during the USHL’s Trade Deadline.

Opperman said he had the chance to speak with a variety of USHL teams such as Dubuque, Indiana and Omaha while Fargo called his future coach at Dartmouth.

But it was Tri-City that stood out.

“They showed the most interest in me,” Opperman said about Tri-City. “I really liked their coaches and what they were about. To me, that was enough.”

Opperman said Tri-City’s coaching staff really talked to him a lot about wanting him to be a part of the team’s future.

Given how things are going, there’s a great chance Opperman could play a pivotal role this year and next season for the Storm.

Tri-City is currently in a battle for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference leading Sioux City by a point for the sixth and final playoff spot in a conference where the postseason landscape changes weekly.

Adding a player who has scored 76 points (32 goals and 44 assists) doesn’t hurt but the plan is for Opperman to do more. At least that’s how he sees it by stating he’s already thinking about the making the adjustment to the USHL.

“It’s tough becuase 95 percent of the guys in the USHL are D-I commits where as here, five percent of the guys are D-I commit,” he said. “It plays mindgames with you a little bit. You wonder if you will be any good. Makes me think about going from bantams to high school. It was a tough adjustment but when you go up a level, the defenses are better.”

Opperman said he’s changed his game a little bit to focus more on the things needed to win games as opposed to making the highlight reel.

He’s strayed away from using toe drags and focused more on controlling the puck and playing a smarter game.

Or as he put it, anything that requires not a lot of stickhandling.

“It’s about protecting the puck, using my frame and driving to the net,” Opperman said. “Use my reach. Anything that doesn’t require a lot of stickhandling is a key to moving up every level. If I have to keep it simple, I am going to keep it simple.”

But Opperman is also looking ahead to next year.

He said playing ten games in the USHL this year can help him adjust to what he’ll see next season in what could very well be a challenging Western Conference.

Yet the challenges exceed what he’ll face on the ice. Opperman recognized he’s moving to Kearney, Neb., a town of less than 31,000 people. Its a drastic change from the Cities, which has suburbs larger than Kearney.

This is where listening comes in handy. Opperman said he spoke with family friend and  Sioux City Musketeers forward Brett Patterson (Dartmouth) about making the transition to USHL life.

“He’s been like my older brother for a long time,” Opperman said of Patterson. “He went from high school to the USHL. He told me to keep it simple. You have to rise to the occasion.”

Lost In The World…

If last week showed us anything with the Power Rankings, it showed us we can be really stupid.

Yes. We admit fault. We sold wolf tickets on some teams only to be disappointed. Some held up their end of the agreement while others just Madoff’d us like we had ‘New York Mets’ written across our foreheads.

So here’s the latest rankings where we hope we look like we know what we’re doing.

1. Green Bay Gamblers (35-7-2): They became the first team this year to clinch a playoff spot which is hardly a surprise. Green Bay is also looking really good when it comes to being tested. The Gamblers won two one-goal games over the weekend with Sam Herr (Notre Dame) coming up big by scoring three goals over both games. Give the defense some credit too. They still haven’t given up 100 goals. OK, so they are at 99, which isn’t bad considering there’s only 16 games left this season. Last Week: No. 1

2. Omaha Lancers (28-15-3): Choosing Omaha or Dubuque for the No. 2 spot would have been easy because both are playing really well. We’re going with Omaha because they swept this weekend. They came to Fargo and won in convincing fashion while getting a shootout win over Sioux Falls. Omaha and Dubuque are extremely similar but one thing is clear. Omaha used two wins and relied upon some help from its Western Conference foes to push out to a one-point lead. Last Week: No. 5

3. Dubuque Fighting Saints (28-14-3): Kind of hard to justify putting this team third but Omaha had the better weekend and that’s really the only fair way to judge. Losing to Youngstown might not be a surprise considering the fight for the No. 2 spot. Yet giving up five goals is a surprise given how solid this defense has been over the year. That said, they stopped Waterloo and that’s saying quite a bit. Last Week: No. 2

4. Lincoln Stars (26-14-4): They won two of three last week including a mid-week game over Tri-City where Kevin Roy (Brown) was, well, Kevin Roy. We know this was a team which was trying to get a goaltender at the USHL Trade Deadline and couldn’t make a deal. It’ll be interesting to see how they do down the stretch and into the playoffs. So far the goaltending is doing OK but it needs to be better for this team to really challenge. Last Week: No. 3

5. Youngstown Phantoms (26-14-5): Winners of two of the last three, the Spirits are doing really well as of late. They’re only two points (or a win) out of second place in what’s been an extremely tough Eastern Conference. Beating Dubuque along with Indiana’s recent slide makes Youngstown extremely likeable when it comes to getting the No. 2 seed. Also take a look at the win over Dubuque, they didn’t need the usual suspects to score goals. Just sayin’. Last Week: No. 8

6. Fargo Force (23-18-4): They are the latest example of how weird things are these days. Indiana has lost three of its last four games and they’ve come against sub-.500 teams but the one win was against Omaha. Go figure. Waterloo has lost three of four including a 6-2 beatdown against the Force. The Force, however, are 3-3 in the last six. They looked bad against Omaha but dominant against Waterloo. Once again, go figure. Last Week: No. 7

7. Indiana Ice (26-12-6): Putting the East’s third-best team (based on record) is a little weird but as previously noted, they’re not playing well as of late. They’ve been seeing a lot of Muskegon and losing to them as well. Not good when second place is on the line every weekend. Last Week: No. 4

8. Waterloo Black Hawks (23-15-6): They only have a two point lead on third and are four points out of second place. They’re now level on games with Lincoln yet have played two fewer than Omaha. Maybe first place is out of the question and second place is a more realistic goal in the interim. They are at Fargo this weekend and either they’ll be chasing two teams or three teams. It is entirely up to them. Last Week: No. 6

9. Des Moines Buccaneers (19-22-4): Des Moines deserves respect. Many people questioned the moves it made at the deadline. So far its paying off considering the team has won four of its last five games and have practically gone from the brink to fifth place with the hopes of possibly going higher. Des Moines now has a four-game homestand and if all goes well, maybe the chance of really making more people take notice. Last Week: No. 12

10. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (19-18-8): Here’s why we look bad now. We had them left for dead like Uma Thurman in a brides dress. We said Chicago had a really good chance of catching them. So what do they do? They win two in a row snapping a six-game losing streak AND beat Chicago in the process. The Iron Machine that is Dennis Kravchenko (Vermont) had two points against the NTDP and now has 15 points in 20 games. Austin Ortega (Nebraska-Omaha) was deadly with four goals this weekend. If this team could improve on their road record, they will become a hard out come playoff time. Last Week: No. 14

11. Sioux City Musketeers (20-25-1): So Des Moines got the better of Sioux City in more ways than you might think. Sioux City not only lost fifth place but Des Moines stole the thunder of a team really making strides. Sioux City is still on the right track, it just has a bit more of an incline on the uphill journey. Last Week: No. 9

12.Tri-City Storm (20-26-0): The Storm won two more games and it now means they’ve won five of their last six. You gotta feel for them. They keep winning. They keep getting closer to .500 but there’s still a feeling they could be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Can’t say it enough. If they get into the playoffs, may God help the offense which has to face Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) and his seven arms. Last Week: No. 13

13. NTDP (19-17-4): Two losses stops momentum but its how they lost. Losing to Green Bay by a goal isn’t bad by any means. Losing by seven to Cedar Rapids is a cause for concern. Or possibly better goaltending. Last Week: No. 11

14. Muskegon Lumberjacks (14-23-6): Break up the Jacks. They’ve won two of the last three and almost made it three in a row over Green Bay. Muskegon has certainly become better with a new head coach. Its a sign which shows things are heading in the right direction albeit maybe a bit too late. Last Week: No. 16

15. Chicago Steel: Here’s why they’ve fallen five spots. Losing to a team with a six-game losing streak cost them. So did the fact Tri-City, Muskegon, Sioux City AND Cedar Rapids made up some serious ground. Maybe this isn’t their year but the future is getting bright in Chicago. Last Week: No. 15

16. Sioux Falls (13-26-4): They’ve lost five in a row. That says it all. Last Week: No. 16