The 2001-2002 USHL season has finally come to and end, and what a season it was. The Eastern Division saw the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders nearly lead the pack from start to finish, only to see the Green Bay Gamblers re-claim the division title on the last game of the season. In the Western Division the Omaha Lancers were led by two stellar goaltenders, Dominic Vicari and Marty Magers, who carried a combined goals against average less than two. As has been the case for the last few years, the West was the stronger of the two divisions. Three teams in the West, Omaha, Lincoln and Sioux City all had better records than the East champ Green Bay. Sioux Falls finished with only one less point. Both divisions sent four teams to the playoffs this season with the Chicago Steel making their first ever visit to the Clark Cup playoffs. All that can be said now is, let the games begin!
Round 1 Matchups
1.Omaha Lancers vs. 8. Chicago Steel
This one is a no brainer. The Steel had a breakthrough season this year but they got the unlucky draw of the Anderson Cup champs. The Steel have a good offense this year led by Nick Anderson and Rene Gauthier. The Steel’s offense is tough and physical and likes to grind things out along the boards. Their forwards are big and strong. Danny Richmond and Tom Gilbert are top prospects on defense in front of John Daigneau. Daigneau, after a slow start to the season has played very strong the second half of the year leading the Steel’s surge to the postseason for the first time in their two year history.
Omaha won the Anderson Cup this season for the best record in the league and are the defending Clark Cup champions. If the Lancers play like they did in the regular season, they should defend their title. Their offense is solid but not overpowering and is led by John Thomas and the assist man, Aaron Slattengren. The Lancers claim to fame this season has been their defense. Chris Harrington and Davor Durakovic lead a steller defensive front. If you get past them, you have to deal with Dominic Vicari or Marty Magers. Nobody wanted to face these two in the regular season and nobody wants to see them in the post season. Combined, Vicari and Magers had 17 shutouts. Magers, who had 10, came 1 short of breaking the team and league record of 11 by Dan Ellis, also a former Lancer.
My Prediction: The Steel should look at this as a big accomplishment in making the post season and they’ll enjoy the experience and use it for next year but Omaha is just too good and there is no way they are falling in the first round. I see Omaha sweeping the series 3-0.
2.Green Bay Gamblers vs. 7. Des Moines Buccaneers
This is a fairly intriguing matchup for the first round. Both teams were up and down all year long. The Buccaneers peaked a few weeks ago and have fallen on hard times of late, but they stopped Lincoln’s 16 game winning streak Saturday night proving they can beat anyone. Green Bay started the season off slow and it appeared they were going to relinquish their division title for the first time in a couple of years. Green Bay did the improbable though, coming back from a huge defecit in the point standings to Cedar Rapids by coming all the way back and beating the RoughRiders in Cedar Rapids to win the division on the last game of the year. They did it behind good old fashioned effort. Tim Stapleton and Adam Burish lead a quick and fast attacking group of forwards. Stapleton led the league in shorthanded goals with six while scoring nearly a point a game. Green Bay’s forwards keep the pressure on at all times. Jake Taylor, Nate Guenin and Matt Greene are solid on defense for the Gamblers. That has always been one of their claims to fame, and it is again this season also. The key to the Green Bay puzzle is goaltending. Eric Pfligler had some big skates to fill in those of Jure Penko, who is playing professionally now. Pfligler, like the Gamblers started slow, but ended up as one of the top goalies in the league. A more scarier thought is, he is only 16 years old. He’ll be terrorizing the USHL next season as well.
In Des Moines the Buccaneers were excited about the return of famous head coach Bob Ferguson. Bucs fans had high hopes this year with the return of the greatest coach in team history. At times they were let down as the Buccaneers were not the force they had hoped to be, but they are still pretty darn good. Alex Matieroukine, who led the league in power play goals this year with 16, leads a strong group of forwards. Chris Collins and Kris Bouchard are a couple of them. Defensively Des Moines has Brett Skinner and Michael Hutchins, who are two highly touted defensive players in the league. Big Luke Irwin is their big hitter, if you aren’t watching he’ll get you. This brings us to Des Moines weakness, goaltending. Chris Gartman, who came to Des Moines from Cornell University is good, but not as good compared to some of the greats in net at the Metro Ice Arena the last several years.
My Prediction: This series is going to be a good one. I see it going the distance of five games with Green Bay winning. The Gamblers get the nod based on the fact they are one of the hottest teams in the league, and that Des Moines has struggled on the road this season.
3.Lincoln Stars vs. 6. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
The Lincoln Stars are by far the hottest team in the league. Winning 16 of their final 17 games to pass Sioux Falls and Sioux City to 2nd place in the West. If the Stars would have had a couple more weeks to play, they may have caught Omaha. The Stars offense comes at you in waves. Dirk Southern, Dan Irmen, Ryan Potulny, John Snowden…the list goes on. They put it to you and come back screaming for more. Usually they get it. The Stars defense corps is led by Ryan Swanson and Lee Marvin. They are rugged and nasty as they always have been. Behind the blueliners are a talented duo in net. Philipe Lamoureux and Nate Ziegelman both won 20 games for Lincoln this year and have proven they deserve more credit than they get.
Cedar Rapids started the season out with a bang. After the first couple of months, it looked as if the ‘Riders were going to run away with the East title. Cedar Rapids wore down in the stretch run and eventually succumbed to the hard charging Gamblers. That doesn’t mean they weren’t a force, but they got the unwelcome task of facing Lincoln in the first round of the playoffs. Nate Meyers and Chase Watson lead a very balanced offensive attack. You can’t key in on any one player as the next one in line can kill you in an instant. P.J. Atherton and Stephen Burgess lead an aggressive group of blueliners. All of them like physical play and they all can handle it with ease. The great Bobby Goepfert has been the workhorse for the RoughRiders in net this season. Considered by many as the top goaltender in the league this year, Goepfert has stood on his head on more than a few occasions this season. Goepfert has been at or near the top of the league in almost every goaltending category and his flair has made him a fan favorite at The Stable.
My Prediction: Cedar Rapids had a great season but some major problems came up during the year. First, they struggled to beat the top teams all year long only winning a few games against the league’s elite. Second, they choked during the most important games at the end of the year, which allowed the Gamblers to win the division. It was there for them, and they couldn’t take it. Lincoln wins it in four.
4.Sioux City Musketeers vs. 5. Sioux Falls Stampede
This is without a doubt the top matchup in the opening round. Two teams who are very close to each other geographically, and two teams who aren’t afraid to say they don’t like each other. Brad Zancanaro is the pesky leader of the Musketeer offense. Brandon Schwartz and Matt Ciancio back him up very well. Any one of these guys can light you up before you can blink. Ryan Geris and Art Femenella lead a Sioux City defense that led the league in penalty minutes by 100 over the next team. They are tough and aren’t afraid to show it. Andy Franck and Kris Mayotte make up another strong duo of goaltenders.
Sioux Falls led the league in goals scored with 252, this is the third year in a row they have had that distinction. Oddly enough, they have been in the league for only three years. Thomas Vanek, who is without a doubt, the top forward prospect in the league this season, scored 91 points on the year, which is 15 more than the next player. Eric Przepiorka and Quinn Fylling and Marty Sertich are also key cogs to the top offense in the league. Cody Blanshan and Rico Fatticci lead the Sioux Falls defense. Sioux Falls allowed 217 goals against this season, most for any playoff team. This may come back to hurt them unless Kellen Briggs can play over his head.
My Prediction: This will be a rough and tumble series that anyone who likes hockey, will want to see. Expect to see it go all five games. Sioux City gets the nod however as the Stampede defense allowed too many goals this season. Sioux City’s offense will prove to be too powerful and the Sioux City defense will tame a lion of an offense.
All series will start Wednesday, April 10th with the exception of Omaha and Chicago who will start Friday April 12th.