By Jason Shaner
With 49 games down on a 60 game schedule, it’s safe to say this is the stretch drive for the Waterloo Black Hawks and the rest of the USHL. You could also say it is gut check time. To date, the Black Hawks have held strong in their bid for their first ever USHL Eastern Division title.
Last weekend Waterloo went on the road twice to defeat two division rivals, Friday beating the four time defending Division champion Green Bay Gamblers 3-2 and Saturday beating the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders by a 4-2 count. In both games Waterloo showed the resolve necessary to win the big game. As of March 4th Waterloo stood 3rd overall in the league standings behind league leading Lincoln (72 points) and River City (67 points). However, if the Black Hawks win their division, they’ll receive the 2nd seed in the upcoming playoffs and home ice advantage throughout unless they face the Stars.
The Black Hawks have been a well rounded team all season long but it has been their goaltending that has picked it up a notch to make this team even better than it was. At the Christmas break O’Handley pondered the possibility of a trade to bring in a goalie if Jeff Jakaitis and Jordan Parise didn’t improve. Improve and more the goaltending duo has. In most circumstances, neither goalie plays consecutive game and it has proven to be productive for the team. Parise currently is 16-8-1 with a 2.59 GAA and .918 saves percentage, good for 2nd in the league. Jakaitis isn’t far behind at 16-7-1, a 2.71 GAA and .914 saves percentage that puts him at 4th in the league. Both goalies GAA are in the top 10 in the league.
Offensively the new Wisconsin Golden Boy, Joe Pavelski (25-22-47) has taken off since his All Star game appearance last month. He has been one of the hottest players in the league and has led the offensive charge of late for Waterloo with gutsy, timely goals. He leads the team in scoring and is in the top 10 overall in the league. Not far behind are the dazzling duo of Ross Carlson (18-25-43) and Andy Nelson (15-27-42). These two have lit the league up all season long and along with Pavelski, will be the go-to guys down the stretch and into the postseason. Not to be forgotten is up and coming star Mike Radja (14-13-27) who is in his rookie season and has already committed to New Hampshire for the 2004-2005 season.
On defense Waterloo has been about as good as they get, even with injuries to two key defenders. Team leader and co-captain Jim Jensen has been out with a leg injury since he was cut by a skate against River City on February 8th. The team antipates a 4-6 week recovery from the injury. He should be back by late season or playoffs but could be a bit rusty. Regardless, the team’s fearless leader will be needed on the bench. Igor Bobcek also has been riddled by the injury bug with a shoulder injury and should be back any day. Skating with a skeleton crew on the ice, the Black Hawks defense still is at the top of the league. Currently they stand 2nd overall in the penalty kill. Jon Saunders and Reid Cashman have been spectacular. Cashman is 4th on the team in scoring with 5 goals and 30 assists. He is also a +21, 4th in the league overall.
Waterloo’s biggest weekend of the season is coming up as they host three home games at Young Arena, a place where they are 20-3-1 on the year, tops in the league. Friday night they host the Sioux Falls Stampede, Saturday the Des Moines Buccaneers come to town and Waterloo will host Green Bay for an afternoon game Sunday. Three wins will move them to within inches of the Division title. However, Waterloo must use caution as Cedar Rapids carried a similar distinction last season, only to blow the division to Green Bay on the last regular season game of the year. Waterloo must take nothing for granted and keep following the “one game at a time” rule O’Handley has instilled in the squad. If they do that, Waterloo will be “Partytown” again.