In the USHL as well as any other league, goaltending is the key element to success. It’s been proven in many a league that you can win with sub-par goaltending during the regular season relying solely on your offense and defense. But if your goaltender can’t make a stop to save his life, it becomes a different story in the postseason. The USHL is a league that is continually broadening its horizons and the level of play continues to get better with each year, as has its goaltenders. It sounds somewhat like a broken record but this season’s crop of goaltenders appears to be one of the best groups to come through the league.
To back up the fact the USHL has sent quality netminders on to the Division I level you need to look no further than players such as Josh Blackburn(Dubuque/Lincoln), Michael Ayers (Dubuque), Darren Gastrock (Waterloo), Matt Carney (Des Moines), Bernd Buckler (Tri-City), Dan Ellis (Omaha) and David Bowen (Sioux Falls). Each of these goalies has made a contribution at the college level. A few have already seen NHL ice. John Grahame (Sioux City), Scott Clemmensen (Des Moines) and Ty Conklin (Green Bay) have all seen action this season in NHL rinks.
Below is the list of the elite in the league this season. All of whom should become names you’ll hear regularly in the hockey world in the coming years.
1.Bobby Goepfert (Cedar Rapids RoughRiders)
Bobby is without a doubt the top goaltender in this league. As a rookie last season he brought home a number of awards and this season he is looking for more. His performance has shone brightly as he has kept his team in first place in the Eastern Division all season long. Goepfert has put up some monster numbers for a team that has relied heavily on his play. Cedar Rapids has played 56 games on the season and Goepfert has played in 46 of them. So far on the year he has compiled a 24-14-5 record with a 2.06 goals against average and .936 saves percentage. Currently Goepfert is tied for 2nd in the league in wins, tied for 1st in shutouts (8) and leads the league in save percentage and totals saves (1,325). This kid is the show-stopper and is going to keep on getting better as he gets older. Goepfert is only 5’10” and 150 pounds and even more surprising he is just a hair shy of 19 years of age. Possibly with the fastest reactions in the league and the amazing knack to always make the clutch save, his hard work has been rewarded with a scholarship to play at Providence College next season. He’s a keeper and a name you’ll be hearing a lot about in the future.
2.Dominic Vicari (Omaha Lancers)
Vicari is one of the best if not the top rookie in the USHL this season. He managed to come in and take over for the Lancers who will rely on him to defend their Clark Cup crown. Vicari much like Goepfert is young and small. Standing in at 5’10’ and carrying 170 pounds of weight, Vicari is a lightning quick goalie who is always in the right position. Turning 18 on October 30 of this year, he already has several options after this season. Without question the Lancers would love to keep him on for another year of seasoning in the USHL. But he may end up with a DI scholarship before it’s all said and done. His numbers have done the talking for him. In only 31 games Vicari has recorded 24 wins against 4 losses and 1 shootout loss. Being tied for 2nd in the league in wins and 2nd in shutouts with seven, he is currently the league’s top rated goaltender with a .925 saves percentage and 1.73 goals against average.
3.Eric Pfligler (Green Bay Gamblers)
Pfligler is the youngest star on the list. Born on May 22, 1985, Eric is only 16 years old and after a slow start is tearing the league up. Standing 5’8” and weighing 170 pounds he still has some growing to do, but time will take care of all that. Pfligler has brought the Gamblers to within only three points of the division lead in the East with a few games left to play. His biggest accomplishment would be taking over the top spot. But his season has been one filled with solid play. Pfligler leads the league in wins with 28. He also leads the league in minutes and games played to go along with five shutouts. His overall record is 28-15-5 with a 2.64 goals against average and .904 saves percentage. With another year of USHL play Pfligler will more than likely get a quality DI scholarship. Under the tutilege of Mark Osiecki, he will get the coaching he will need as Osiecki has put out such quality goaltenders as Jure Penko and Ty Conklin.
4.Andy Franck (Sioux City Musketeers)
Andy is kind of a no nonsense kind of guy. He doesn’t do anything extremely flashy, he just gets the job done, over and over again. Franck is in his final year of USHL eligibility as he will turn 21 on July 4th but he more than likely will see more big time action in the years to come. The Musketeers have a knack of getting good goaltenders and moving them on to the next level. Franck stands 6 feet tall and weighs 190 pounds. He has no glaring weaknesses and performs at a high level all the time. On the year Andy is 23-9 for the Musketeers, who currently sit 2nd place in the Western Division. He’s got a 2.36 goals against average and a .924 saves percentage that is 2nd in the league. Franck also has three shutouts and although compared against the previously mentioned competitors they aren’t much, that number is nothing to laugh at.
5.Noah Ruden (Tri-City Storm)
Noah deserves to be a member of this list. He was a good goaltender last season for a horrible team in Dubuque and started off the season in a poor situation with the Tulsa Crude. It’s been rumored all season the Crude have had many problems off the ice that led to many trades, one of which included Ruden being shipped to Tri-City. The Storm had a great goaltender last season in Bernd Buckler. In their second year of existence the Storm didn’t have anyone to fill that position until Ruden came aboard. Ruden’s got the right frame for a goaltender at six feet tall and 165 pounds. Ruden has flexibility that is rivaled by few in this league. Since being acquired from Tulsa early in the season, Ruden has put together 17 wins. Most impressively, Ruden has four shutouts since February 22. Overall on the year Noah is 18-20-3 with a .902 saves percentage and 3.17 goals against average. The Storm will probably fall just short of making the playoffs, but Ruden put his best foot forward to get them ever so close. Ruden will turn 20 in July and should end up with the scholarship he is looking for after this season.
The above five are in my eyes the crème of the crop in the league this season. A couple came just short of the cut. Marty Magers (Omaha), Philipe Lamoureux (Lincoln) and John Daigneau (Chicago) make the honorable mention list.
This is part one in a three part series. The top five defenseman and the top 10 forwards in the league will be coming out soon to complete what I see as the top 20 players in the USHL this year.