It’s getting close. The end of the year is not far away and things are only getting better as the season goes along. The playoff races are starting to take shape.
In the Eastern Division the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders still are the leader of the pack with 61 points. But the RoughRiders have fallen on some rough times and their mettle is being tested. The problem for Cedar Rapids is their closest competitors; Des Moines and Green Bay have games in hand. Currently Cedar Rapids has a six-point lead over Des Moines (55 pts) and a ten-point lead against Green Bay (51 pts). What does this all mean? Maybe nothing but if Cedar Rapids should fall from the Division lead and go into the playoffs without the coveted Division Title and number two seed, problems are abound for the ‘Riders. Cedar Rapids then would likely face a grueling series against Omaha, Sioux City or Sioux Falls, and give them home ice on top of that. Cedar Rapids has not fared well against those three teams. Cedar Rapids is collectively 0-7 against Omaha, Sioux Falls and Sioux City. Five of their remaining 14 games are against those same teams. The Buccaneers have been hot but still have not proven they can win consistently on the road. If Des Moines is going to overtake Cedar Rapids for the Division lead and win in the playoffs, they’re going to have to win on the road. Green Bay is a lock for the playoffs but hasn’t been exceptionally impressive lately. The Chicago Steel appears well on their way to a playoff birth in their 2nd year of existence. Waterloo and Rochester will simply fight to stay out of the cellar in the East.
In the Western Division things are even more jumbled. Sioux City, who has led for most of the season, has now relinquished their lead to the defending Clark Cup and Gold Cup Champion Omaha Lancers. The Lancers lead the league with 68 points while the Musketeers are still close at their heels with 64. Omaha leads the season series between the two teams 3-2 and they only have one more game to play against each other. Sioux Falls will go a long way in determining the winner of the West as well. The Stampede may very well end up on top, as they are third in the West with 63 points. They have the best offense in the league by far and their goaltending and defense is much improved. Even the Lincoln Stars aren’t far out with 57 points. The Stars got out of the gate slowly and have been pretty tough since then. They aren’t the best team in the league this season, but aren’t far off. As these teams play each other for the final times this season, they will have much more meaning than anything else. The Western Division again is the best division in the league as it usually is.
Individually there are a few players who stand out as the best of the best. Cedar Rapids Bobby Goepfert is by far the best goaltender in the league this season. Goepfert has posted a 21-9-5 record this season with a GAA of 1.91 and saves percentage of .941. Goepfert has been phenomenal this season as the MVP for his club with seven shutouts. He may end up the MVP of the league if he can win in the postseason. But Goepfert is not the top rated goaltender in the league, in fact he’s not even 2nd. Sitting in the 1st and 2nd spots in the leader board in the USHL is the goaltending duo that may be the best one-two punch in the league. USHL rookie Dominic Vicari is currently the top rated goaltender in the league with a 18-4-1 records to go with a sparkling 1.75 GAA and .927 saves percentage while posting seven shutouts of his own. When Vicari isn’t between the pipes the Lancers count on Marty Magers. Magers is 15-5-1 with a 1.84 GAA and .920 saves percentage. Magers has six shutouts. Add Magers and Vicari’s totals and you got a formidable duo.
Offensively Thomas Vanek of Sioux Falls is the class of the league, hands down. He may be the class of the USHL draft. The only person who may be better than him at their respective position is Goepfert. Vanek has played in 36 games and has 71 points with 36 goals and 35 assists. Vanek averages almost 2 points a game and is as balanced a forward as this league has ever seen. Vanek can score on command but is maybe one the best passer in the league. Following Vanek for the Stampede are some pretty impressive players as well. Eric Przepiorka (31g 20a), Marty Sertich (17g 28a) and Quinn Fylling (19g 25a) have been lethal all season long. Vince Bellissimo of Topeka also is future NHL material. Bellissimo has scored 26 goals and 25 assists in his rookie USHL season. Bellissimo will more than likely be somewhere playing big time college hockey next season. Both division leaders, Cedar Rapids and Omaha have only 1 player apiece on the points category. Nate Meyers, the leader of the RoughRiders has 24 goals and 19 assists for nearly a point a game average. Aaron Slattengren represents the Lancers with 11 goals and 31 assists showing the forward likes to dish it out.
Meyers also leads the league in penalty minutes with 170 showing he gets involved with a little more than just scoring. Meyers has been the offensive and emotional leader of his bunch. The defending penalty minute leader from last season, Tim Conboy of Topeka, isn’t far off Meyers pace. The scary thing is, Conboy has 138 penalty minutes in only 25 games!
One thing is for sure, there is still a lot of action to take place in this fantastic league. Lots of crazy things can happen as far as the playoff seedings can go. It’s not impossible that somebody who is not currently in the top eight could make the miraculous run to the playoffs. The only thing that is guaranteed is the action will be great.