USHL Clark Cup Preview: Fargo Force vs Indiana Ice
The USHL’s Clark Cup final is set to begin this Friday night in Indianapolis, and will feature the expansion Fargo Force and the Indiana Ice, a team that was in a dog fight for 1st overall for most of the season. Fargo slides into the final having swept its last two opponents (Omaha and Lincoln) in what were relatively tame series’. Indiana comes into the finals after a hard fought (literally) series with Green Bay and an equally hotly contested series with Cedar Rapids that saw a number of games go into overtime.
The teams break down as follows:
Both teams feature excellent goalies who were 1-2 in wins this year and both top 5 in save percentage. Indiana rolls with Brett Bennett, a 20 year old goaltender from New York (and Coyotes draft pick) who has 2 years experience with the USNTDP and 2 years at Boston University. He provided the run and gun Ice with a steady influence all season and racked up 35 wins in the process.
While he doesn’t have the experience that Bennett does, Fargo’s Mike Lee is still an impressive goaltender. Headed for St. Cloud State next season and expected to be among the first few goalies selected in the draft, this Roseau, MN product gave the expansion Force instant credibility. A big yet mobile goalie, Lee has been great in the playoffs, stopping nearly everything thrown at him and leading the league in every statistical category.
Lee has the game and Bennett has the experience right now, so I am calling this one a draw.
Indiana employs a nice mixture of skill and grit on the blueline. Torey Krug (+11 in the playoffs) and Loren Barron are the top puck movers and each have 6 points in 9 games thus far. The top 6 is rounded out by the towering Michael Owilli, Joe Hartman, Garrett Kennedy and Anthony Bitetto. All of these guys are plus players with the exception of Kennedy and can all chip in with a little offense if needed. Taylor Boldt will sometimes dress as a 7th defender. The size factor here is huge, as Fargo has some big forwards (Taranto, Birkholz) that can score and dominate down low. To me, this will be one of the key battles.
Fargo employs a somewhat patchworked defensive corps that has become quietly effective. Led by Tampa prospect Luke Witkowski and newcomer Eammon McDermott, the Force defense has become an efficient unit. Not overly offensively talented, they can still provide some offense from the back end. More importanly, they are able to make a good first pass and shut down the other teams top units. Steve Spinell, Jake Arashenko (the lone Force player with playoff experience), Grant Scott (a converted forward) and Tom McCarthy rounding out the top 6. Chris Franks also sees a little bit of time on the point, getting into 3 games thus far.
Despite Indiana’s use of a balanced top 6, I give the edge to Fargo here for their play thus far. You can’t argue with success.
Led by UND recruit Mike Cichy, the Ice boast an impressive stable of forwards. Seemingly all blessed with great offensive talent and instincts, the Ice can roll out 2 lines that can kill you and a couple that can hurt you real bad. Cichy leads all playoff point getters with 16 thus far. In fact, Indiana boasts the top 3 point producers in the playoffs. Only one forward has yet to tally a goal and all of them have found the scoresheet at least once. The balance here is astounding, and Fargo will have their hands full containing this bunch. In addition to Cichy, players to watch are Zach Golembiewski, Brandon Richardson and Stan Galiev (a very talented 16 year old).
The Force are able to claim 4th leading playoff scorer Andy Taranto (10 points in 6 games). Taranto and his center Matt Leitner have been somewhat of an unstoppable force since Christmas, with Taranto racking up 28 goals since the mid-season break. Chase Grant supplies the energy and grit on the top line on what has become a very potent unit. The Force also have some depth, with a second unit consisting of Nate Condon, Josh Birkholz and typically Corey Leivermann. First year player Colten St. Clair has had a strong showing thus far, with 5 points in 6 games. Others to watch include speedster Oleg Lee and Keegan Flaherty, who along with Birkholz are prospects for this spring’s entry draft.
Indiana wins this one because of their depth and offensive talent.
Indiana is led by first year man Jeff Blashill, who has had success at the various levels where he has coached (including 6 years at Miami). Blashill took over in the spring and promptly guided the Ice to a very respectable 3rd place finish in the ultra competitive Eastern Division (2 points out of first).
Fargo is led by former UND Fighting Sioux (where he won 2 national titles) coach Dean Blais. Another first year USHL coach, Blais also coached the Force to a 3rd place finish after a rough start to the season. He has yet to lose a playoff game this year.
Indiana has not been able to translate their potent offensive weapons into a steady power play on the road as of yet, but they do boast an impressive 36.8% conversion rate at home. To top it all off they have 4 shorthanded goals so far.
Fargo has the best overall conversion rate on their powerplay, going 10 for 33 overall with most of their goals coming on the road, where the Force have yet to lose.
As for intangibles, the Ice have been quite good at home this playoff season while we already know that the Force are a force on the road. Indiana has endured two very tough series thus far while Fargo has enjoyed two mild series’ with ample time off in between. The long rest after the first did not seem to negatively affect the boys from Fargo, so I doubt this layoff will slow them down either. Indiana gets the luxury of starting at home and has the nicer bus to travel on. Fargo has the momentum and the confidence.
I give a slight edge to Fargo here mostly due to coaching. Blashill is excellent, but Blais is nearly a legend.
Prediction: Fargo in 4. I think Indiana’s offensive talent gets them at least one victory, but Fargo looks to be on a mission.