By Jason Shaner
The Waterloo Black Hawks season came to an abrupt end Tuesday night in Council Bluffs as the River City Lancers completed a three game sweep of the Hawks in the semi-finals of the USHL, winning 3-1. To some, the series was a surprise as Waterloo had dominated the Lancers all season long going 6-0 during that stretch. However, it’s been said too many times that the playoffs are a different animal, and that they were. Waterloo had a difficult time on offense all series long as they faced the top goaltender in the league, Dominic Vicari and he proved why he won the honor of Goaltender of the Year in the USHL. “I think number 1, you have to give River City the bulk of the credit,” Black Hawks Head Coach and General Manager P.K. O’Handley said. “They did a great job of bottling us up. They didn’t give us a ton of scoring chances, when we had them they were very opportunistic.” The Black Hawks did have many chances in the first two games however the Lancers steller defense led by Matt Carle wouldn’t let the Black Hawks high powered offense get on track. “I don’t think our players looked beyond them (after Waterloo went 6-0 during the regular season against the Lancers), I think we just ran into a hot team that played well,” O’Handley added.
In each of the games the Lancers used a three to five minute window to control the game. In game 1 the Lancers scored twice in the first five minutes for the 2-0 final. Outside of that, the teams were equal. In Game 2 the Lancers used three consecutive goals in the second period to overcome a 2-0 defecit. The goals all came within minutes of each other before Nathan Gerbe shot a daggar into the hearts of Black Hawks fans everywhere scoring with less than five minutes left for the 4-3 Lancer win. Finally, Game 3 was dominated by the Lancers with the exception of a Joe Pavelski goal less than a minute and a half into the game. The shots on goal count looked more like a lopsided football score for the majority of the game. “I think Mike Hastings (coach of River City) would echo this, Vicari was the difference in the series,” O’Handley said. “Playing good wasn’t good enough in this series.” When asked if experience was the difference in the series O’Handley responded by saying, “No question. They’ve been there, their players have been there. None of our guys had been to that point. It was new, hopefully the guys coming back will keep a memory of what needs to be done in the future.” The Lancers won the Clark Cup two seasons ago defeating the Lincoln Stars and then lost the Clark Cup last season to the Sioux City Musketeers in the fifth and deciding game. Many of those players returned this season. “I’m happy with all my players, they laid it all on the line,” O’Handley added when asked if there was any disapointment after the series loss.
The Black Hawks had their best run as a Junior Hockey outfit ever. They’ve been in existence since before the league turned to a Junior hockey format in the 1979-1980 season. Before, the USHL was a semi-pro league. They hadn’t won a playoff series since the mid-80’s until they defeated the Des Moines Buccaneers in the first round this year. They had never won a Division title as a Junior Hockey team….until this season. They set franchise records in overall and home winning streaks with 12 and 16 respectively. They swept the Lancers this season, a feat not seen often. In fact the only other time was the Lancers inaugural season when they went winless. The Black Hawks garnered plenty of attention from the league as Pavelski won Rookie of the Year honors, O’Handley won Coach and General Manager of the year, the Black Hawks themselves were the Organization of the year in the league. Pavelski made first team all USHL while defenseman Reid Cashman made 2nd team all USHL. Both players made the all rookie squad. The list could go on. “There were alot of high points,” said O’Handley. “You can look at winning streaks, the records we broke, but to be quite honest our players expect to be successful. Hopefully they laid the building block to what should be a bright future here in Waterloo.” When asked specifically what the high point of the season was, O’Handley responded, “I think the players believed in each other, themselves and the team concept. We started 4-8-1 and people thought it was the same old thing, but they (the players) knew different and that says alot about the character of the boys.”
The Black Hawks had many strengths that brought them to this point. A more than solid offense led by Pavelski who ended up with 69 points, good for third in the league. Batman and Robin, otherwise known as Andy Nelson and Ross Carlson each tallied 50 points. Cashman was a pleasant surpise as was much of the Black Hawks team. Jordan Parise and Jeff Jakaitis teamed up to be hands down the best goaltending duo in the league. But forget individual stats, that meant little to the team and coaching staff. “The strength of our team was that we were a team,” said the coach. “They played for each other and more importantly for the organization. Another strength was the depth of our roster. We got production out of almost anybody, young guys, old guys, it didn’t matter. Our strengths cost us in the playoffs as we didn’t get production out of our depth, we didn’t play our best playoffs and we faced a pretty good goalie.”
Now it’s on to next year for the Black Hawks and O’Handley. Many players will be returning, the biggest name being Pavelski, for now at least. As well as he played this season a college scholarship isn’t out of the question for him, it’s a matter of whether or not he wants to go now or wait another year. Sadly enough, many players will be moving on. Captain Trevor Stewart is heading to UCONN, Nelson to Miami of Ohio, Rob Lehtinen to Northern Michigan, Matt Fornataro to New Hampshire, Cashman to Quinnipiac and Jim Jensen to Ferris State. Carlon and Parise have run out of Juniors eligibility and will no doubt lock up a scholarship somewhere over the summer. Although the names that will be gone are big ones, there are bigger ones coming in as there always is in the world of Junior Hockey. “I think the core of our team is good, the three tenders were signed we are very excited about those players, they are young and it will be an adjustment period but we are excited,” O’Handley said. “I’m excited, the cupboard isn’t bare by any means. We have to have a good draft there’s no question about that, at least the nucleus we have, we feel good about right now.” When asked what areas needed to be addressed most in the upcoming May USHL draft O’Handley replied, “We need to get bigger. I think we’re going to lose alot of defenseman and that’s going to be a huge issue for us going into the draft.”
All O’Handley has done is spark enthusiam again in the Cedar Valley for the Black Hawks, bring a winner to Young Arena and bring life to a franchise that has far too long been in the basement of the league. Not bad for one season, the biggest thing now will be topping it next season. I’m not sure if there is anyone in the league who doubts he’ll do it. I certainly don’t.
O’Handley summed things up when he said, “It’s been fun, the kids had a good time, I hope the fans had fun. As a staff we enjoyed it very much.” I think I speak for everyone who follows the Black Hawks by saying, YES WE DID!!!!