by Andrew Hoyle
River City wrapped up the regular season last night(3/29/03), but not in the convincing fashion they were hoping for. The Lancers slide into the USHL playoffs as a number five seed, having lost their last four games. Their opponent in the first round of the playoffs is the number four seed Sioux City Musketeers. River City owns a record of four wins and two losses in their series against the Musketeers this season, but don’t count on that being any kind of indication of how it’s going to go in the best-of-five playoffs. It’s going to be a tough road for the Lancers, knowing they have to play at least two games at the Sioux City Auditorium. Here’s a look at how the Lancers got to their playoff predicament:
Don’t Mail it In: versus Des Moines, March 18th. With the wins coming almost at will, and the league-leading Lincoln Stars within easy reach, River City started a three-game home stand with a Tuesday night game against Des Moines. The playoff-bound Buccaneers came to play, though, and managed to pull out a 3-1 win. Despite holding a nearly two-to-one advantage in shots on goal (53-27), River City’s lone goal came at the 11:35 mark of the first period when Yale Lewis beat Bucs goaltender A.J. Bucchino. The strategy was to throw a lot of pucks at Bucchino early and often, as demonstrated by the 26 shots he faced in the first period alone, the Lancers hoped for plenty of rebound opportunities. But Bucchino was equal to the task, and singlehandedly kept the Lancers from getting a fourteenth win in a row, which would have tied a franchise-best record.
Break: versus U.S. National Team, March 21st. An angry River City team took a break from league play to host the U.S. National Under-18 Team in an unusually spirited exhibition game. Still fuming over the loss to Des Moines, the Lancers pummeled Team USA goaltender Chris Holt with 42 shots en route to a 5-3 win. Phil Todd and Nick Schaus took some time to demonstrate their pugilistic skills, Todd lowering the boom on Team USA’s Bobby Selden, and Schaus having a go with Team USA’s Adam Pineault. Paul Stastny released some aggression of his own, scoring two goals on the night. Mike Howe got his eleventh power play goal of the season at the 14:03 mark of the second period. Drew Miller and Corey Carlson each had a goal on the night, and Todd and Janne Jokila had two assists each.
Shutout: versus Green Bay, March 22nd. River City looked to keep its winning ways alive the next night against a Green Bay team they had already beaten five times this season, including two shutouts. But the Gamblers turned the tables on the Lancers with a shutout of their own and two power play goals in a 3-0 win. It marked only the third time this year the Lancers were shut out, but it wasn’t for lack of opportunities. After putting only eight shots on goal in the first period, River City put nineteen on net in the second, with the same goose egg as a result. Finally, in a move showing exactly how badly River City wanted this one, goaltender Dominic Vicari was pulled with nearly eight minutes left in the game in favor of the sixth attacker. Twenty-one shots later, and with a game total of forty-eight, the Lancers still had a donut on the scoreboard and were watching their playoff seeding go downhill.
Jinx: at Waterloo, March 28th. The Lancers were looking to get several monkeys of their backs in this one. They hadn’t won a game at Waterloo all year; they hadn’t beaten the Hawks anywhere all season, in fact. Waterloo hadn’t even allowed the Lancers a third period goal all season. Historically, Vicari didn’t have his best games at Waterloo, either (0-2-1, 3.12 GAA, .857 SV%). But with River City riding a six-game road winning streak (ties a franchise best), and the return of John Togiai to the lineup, fortunes had to change, right? Wrong. River City opened the scoring early with a goal by Todd at the 1:09 mark of the first period, and Grant Clafton added a power play goal late in the first, but the Waterloo goals came faster than U.S. cruise missiles into Baghdad in a 8-3 loss. Miller got a power play goal early in the third period, breaking that particular hex, but Vicari wasn’t so lucky; he got the hook in favor of backup Chad Beiswenger with 1:05 left in the second period after his fifth goal allowed on twenty-one shots.
Finale: versus Topeka, March 29th. Home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs was on the line when the Lancers hosted the ScareCrows in the regular season finale. Todd once again got the Lancers off to a quick start with a goal just forty-one seconds into the first period, and T.J. Jindra added a shorthanded goal with just four seconds left in the same period. But Topeka took advantage of its power play opportunities, going 3 for 7, to include a critical power play conversion by Phil Angell late in the third period, to pull out a 4-3 win. Topeka clinched the third seed and home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and sent River City to Sioux City as a fifth seed.
River City finished the regular season with some outstanding stats for its goaltenders; Vicari (45 GP, 2507:56 MIN, 28 W, 14 L, 2 OTL, 6 SO, 85 GA, 2.034 GAA, .914 SV%) led the league in wins, goals against average, and shutouts; Beiswenger (15 GP, 767:55 MIN, 7 W, 2 L, 3 OTL, 2 SO, 32 GA, 2.500 GAA, .900 SV%) was third in the league with goals against average. Steady and consistent play from these two should be able to carry the Lancers through the first round of the playoffs. With the recent inspired play of Phil Todd (39 GP, 13 G, 8 A, 21 PTS, +8, 23 PIM, 1 PPG, .167 shooting percentage-best on team), and the return of John Togiai from injury, River City is still going to be a dangerous team for anyone to face in the USHL playoffs.