by Andrew Hoyle
The River City Lancers pulled out all the stops, beating the Waterloo Black Hawks not once, not twice, but three times in a row, getting sweet revenge for dropping six straight to Waterloo in the regular season. Whether the Black Hawks were too comfortable with that 6-0 regular season record against the Lancers, or were too unfamiliar with the territory of the playoffs, is anybody’s guess at this point. Either way, River City came out of the gates with its vast amount of playoff experience and a game plan that included a lot of early pressure with forechecking, much to the bewilderment of the Black Hawks. River City coach Mike Hastings also stressed the importance of not turning the puck over in the Lancer defensive zone and giving the Black Hawks a short sheet of ice to work with, something Waterloo had done to the Lancers all season. When it was all said and done, the Lancers had won twice at Waterloo’s Young Arena, had swept the series 3-0, and had earned the right to face the Lincoln Stars for the 2003 Clark Cup in the USHL Championship series. A look at how the series played out:
Game 1, at Waterloo, April 11th: River City opened the scoring less than two minutes into the game, as John Togiai put a shot past Waterloo’s Jordan Parise at the 1:49 mark of the first period. Nate Raduns got the assist. Just over two minutes later, the Lancers would get another score, this time by Drew Miller, with the assist coming from Matt Carle. River City peppered Parise with 17 first period shots. The surprised Black Hawks allowed no more scoring on their defense for the game, but the damage was already done, and the Lancer defense pitched a 2-0 shutout of its own. Goaltender Dominic Vicari (29 shots, 29 saves) got his first shutout of the playoffs, and the Lancer blue line and penalty killing units deserved much of the credit, forcing Waterloo to go 0 of 6 on power play opportunities. For the game, the Lancers outshot the Black Hawks 30-29, a closer margin than normal for the Lancers. River City proved it could play a hard and physical game against the Black Hawks at Young Arena, including 16 minutes of penalties on 8 infractions, and there was a belief amongst the Lancer faithful that this series wasn’t going to be anything like the regular season.
Game 2, at Waterloo, April 12th: Waterloo made a quick strike of its own to open the scoring in game two, as Joe Pavelski made short work of a turnover in the Lancer defensive zone to beat Vicari and go up 1-0 at the 4:54 mark of the first period. That score held up as the only one until midway through the second period, when Waterloo’s Andy Nelson got a power play goal at the 7:35 mark of the second period with River City’s Carle in the box for a hooking penalty. Things were looking bad for the Lancers, but Yale Lewis sparked a resurgence in the Lancer effort with a nice wraparound goal of his own less than two minutes later to make the score 2-1. Shortly after Lewis’ goal, Janne Jokila converted a power play opportunity for the Lancers, blasting a shot past Waterloo’s Jeff Jakaitis to tie it at 2-2. The Lancers didn’t stop there, though, and added another goal at the 11:41 mark of the second period with a shot by Mike Howe that was tipped in by T.J. Jindra to make it 3-2 Lancers. Waterloo got another power play goal at the 15:05 mark of the second, and the score would remain 3-3 until late in the game, when the USHL’s youngest (and smallest) player would become the hero for the Lancers. At the 16:45 mark of the third period, Nate Gerbe took a feed from Corey Carlson and blasted it past Jakaitis for a 4-3 Lancer lead. Vicari (37 shots, 34 saves) and the Lancer defense held for the rest of the game, to include a minute and a half at the end when Waterloo pulled Jakaitis for the 6 on 5 advantage, and came away with the 4-3 decision. The Lancers came out of Young Arena having won two straight, and Vicari had raised his save percentage against the Blackhawks from .840 during the regular season to .955 during the playoffs. The Lancers outshot the Blackhawks by the narrowest of margins yet again, 39-37. Waterloo went 2 for 4 on the power play, and River City went 1 for 3 on the night.
Game 3, at River City, April 15th: Waterloo had their backs to the wall, and they knew it. The Black Hawks came out of the gates fast again, with a Pavelski goal at the 1:21 mark of the first period. But that shot, and four others, were all the Blackhawks got in the first period, compared to River City’s 25. For the game, River City put it to Waterloo with a 44-20 shots on goal advantage, and included a second period where the Lancer defense allowed only two shots on goal. Lancer captain Jindra got his team on the board with a goal at the 8:24 mark of the first period, and the score would remain 1-1 until the third period, when Phil Todd finally found the back of the net with a pass from Jason Dest to make it a 2-1 Lancer lead. River City added an empty net goal by Miller with just two seconds left in the game to make it a 3-1 Lancer win. Vicari (20 shots, 19 saves) and the Lancer defense again made the difference, denying the high-powered Black Hawk offense any real scoring opportunities during the game.
Up next for the Lancers is a date with the Lincoln Stars, and the Clark Cup is on the line. Lincoln remembers well two years ago when the Lancers beat them in the best-of-five series for the Cup and went on to win the Gold Cup and the national championship. The Stars won this year’s regular season series 4-2, and included a 10-2 pasting of the Lancers at the Mid-America Center back in December. Lincoln outscored the Lancers by an average of 4.1 goals a game to River City’s 2.1 goals a game. Lincoln brings in its .314 power play conversion percentage and 11 power play goals for, compared to the Lancers .129 conversion percentage and 4 power play goals for. On the penalty kill, Lincoln is an outstanding .926 on the penalty kill percentage, having allowed only two power play goals in the playoffs; the Lancers come in at .867 on the penalty kill percentage and have allowed 4 power play goals against in the playoffs. What does it all mean? Absolutely nothing. You can throw every stat you want right out the window for this one, as the two best teams in the USHL collide for the Clark Cup and bragging rights for next season. The Lancers have already proved that records and statistics don’t mean a thing when it’s time for the playoffs. And, like my wife says, it’s against “Stinkin’ Lincoln,” and there’s no love lost there. Once again, the Lancers will look to these players for leadership during the series: goaltender Dominic Vicari (7GP, 421:07MIN, 6W, 1L, 1SO, 12GA, 1.71GAA, 174SV, .935SV%), forwards T.J. Jindra (7GP, 2G, 4A, 6PTS, +5, 2PIM, .111%), Mike Howe (7GP, 2G, 4A, 6PTS, +2, 0PIM, 1PPG, .071%), and Janne Jokila (7GP, 2G, 2A, 4PTS, +1, 12PIM, 2PPG, .111%). On defense, penalty minute-leader Matt Carle (7GP 1G, 1A, 2PTS, +6, 16PIM, .031%) continues to lead the blue line, in more ways than one. Also look for scoring leader Drew Miller (7GP, 4G, 3A, 7PTS, +2, 2PIM, 1 PPG, 1SHG, .190%) to continue finding the back of the net, and Charlie Kronschnabel (7GP, 2G, 0A, 2PTS, +5, .154%) to be an impact player in this series. Look for another long series in this one; it will probably go the distance for a game five decision. Both teams will take the time to feel each other out for the best possible advantage, and don’t look for any more 10-goal games; neither team will allow that to happen at this point.