Halfway home. The 2001-2002 USHL season is at the midway mark of the season and so far USHL fans have been treated to some fantastic exhibitions of hockey. The race for the division titles has already begun with teams jockeying for playoff position and the coveted Division title for the 1st and 2nd seeds in the Clark Cup USHL playoffs. In the Eastern Division the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders have held the top spot for quite awhile with 38 points (18-10-2). Up until recently there was very little competition for the spot but the Green Bay Gamblers have stepped up their game a notch and are now within striking distance with 35 points (16-8-3). The Des Moines Buccaneers a preseason favorite by many, including myself to win the Eastern Division is not far behind with 33 points (15-10-3). The RoughRiders though hold the upper hand as they played a large number of their road games in the first half of the season en route to compiling a wonderful 12-7-2 road record.
With approximately 2/3 of their road schedule out of the way, Cedar Rapids will be in good shape to bring home their first ever division title while in Cedar Rapids. In the Western Division the Sioux City Musketeers broke out of the gate the fastest and still hold the top spot in the West as well as the top seed in the entire league with 46 points (22-5-2). Similarly to Cedar Rapids, the Musketeers have company at the top of the pole. The Sioux Falls Stampede have ridden a seven game winning streak back into 2nd place with 43 points (21-7-1) while the defending Clark and Gold Cup Champion Omaha Lancers are a very close 3rd place with 42 points (20-6-2). In 4th place in the west stand the Lincoln Stars. Lincoln started out slowly but have been their usual self lately while compiling 36 points (17-8-2). The Western Division is once again the strongest so far this season. Lincoln is two points off tying the total points of the Eastern Division leader Cedar Rapids although if the season ended today, the RoughRiders would hold the 2nd seed in the playoffs.
Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (18-10-2=38pts): It was a well-known fact that Cedar Rapids was going to be good before the season started. It just wasn’t as publicly known that they were going to be that good. The Cedar Rapids faithful knew what they were getting before the season started and have been very excited so far. Nate Meyers has been invaluable to the squad leading the team in more than just one category, he leads the team in points (15-12-27), penalty minutes (95) and countless plays that display his leadership and skill. Every team should have a Nate Meyers. Joe Gaspirini (10-11-21) and Ted O’Leary (8-12-20) have also been key players to a very balanced offensive attack.
Defensively P.J. Atherton (5-13-18) has been their best defender but as usual Cedar Rapids has a very physical group on the blue line, Atherton is just the leader of this group. The MVP of Cedar Rapids and maybe the league is their net minder Bobby Goepfert. In 27 games Goepfert has gone 16-6-2 with a 1.92 GAA and astonishing .942 saves percentage. Goepfert has been even better than last year, which isn’t much of a surprise to anyone around the Cedar Rapids area, if he continues his torrid pace, the ‘Riders may just bring home some hardware this season.
Green Bay Gamblers (16-8-3=35pts): The Gamblers have been a little different this year than in the past. The Gamblers have always had gamers but this season they have more balance on the offense than in the last few years. Certainly the offense has always been a dagger to their opponents, but this season the Gamblers have several players who can hurt you in a moments notice. Adam Burish (12-18-30), Matt Johnson (18-11-29) and A.J. Degenhardt (13-14-27) are the leaders of the pack for Green Bay but they are not alone offensively. Green Bay has stuck with its guns by keeping a very solid defensive core together. Matt Greene (1-6-7), Nathan Guenin (1-6-7) and Jake Taylor (1-2-3) have all been strong.
Their biggest question mark before the year started was if Eric Pfligler was good enough to replace Jure Penko. Well, that question has been answered although Pfligler may not have the capability to win games on his talent alone, he has posted a solid 15-5-2 record to go along with a 2.99 GAA and .892 saves percentage. Green Bay is certainly not out of the race for the Eastern Division and they have a strong shot at retaining their position as the traditional winner for this Division of the league. But they will have to win on the road and earn it.
Des Moines Buccaneers (15-10-3=33pts): In Des Moines, the Buccaneers have been a Jekyll and Hyde of sorts. At home they hold a dazzling 12-1 record but on the road their troubles are exposed going only 3-9-2. The forward position is one that is good but not as strong as in years past. Alex Matieroukine leads the Des Moines forwards but not the team in scoring (19-8-27) with Mark Langdon a strong compliment (7-15-22). Des Moines defense has been a major offensive contributor with team scoring leader Brett Skinner (6-30-36) and Michael Hutchins (5-17-22). The Buccaneers goaltending duties have rested with Chris Gartman most of the time. Gartman has responded with an 11-8-1 record with a 2.95 GAA and .894 saves percentage.
The Buccaneers are a good team, but not a great team and this team has fallen back into the same spot as they have the last couple of years, the middle of the pack. Unless the goaltending gets a lot better and the road wins begin to pile up, the Buccaneers will not hold the important home ice advantage in the playoffs. But there is a lot of time left this season, and these guys were my pick to win the division. There still is a chance, but a small one at that.
Chicago Steel (10-13-6=26pts): Chicago in its 2nd year of USHL existence has a strong shot at making the playoffs this season. They are not a team full of headliners, but they do have some very solid players that help make this team very competitive. Their offense is explosive and at times, they can blast off against someone and there is not much that can be done about it. Nick Anderson (15-16-31) and Rene Gauthier (12-12-24) lead the offensive charge for the Steel. On defense, Chicago has two excellent defenders in that of Tom Gilbert (7-8-15) and Danny Richmond (4-21-25). Both defenders are very strong, physical players who protect their teammates and goaltender well.
John Daigneau has been one of many Chicago goaltenders this year, but he has seen the most ice time going 4-6-4 with a 3.20 GAA and .898 saves percentage. Those statistics are not indicative of his potential, however, the Steel’s defense is not as strong as it could be. There is good talent there, just not from top to bottom and in this league, you have to have a strong lineup from top to bottom in order to be in the top of the standings. Chicago will be fighting for their playoff lives this year, but last season they were in the same position and they came up just short, this year they may be the team with the advantage.
Rochester Mustangs (10-15-2=22pts): Before the season began, rumors swirled about whether or not the Rochester Mustangs could finish play this season before an announcement was made of where this team was being moved too. It may not be out of the question but what seemed to be a very bleak season has turned into a very nice one. No, the Mustangs are not in the basement of the league, which is a place they have sat for much of the last few seasons. Granted they are not top of the league material, what they are is competitive. A competitive team is always a fun one to watch. Offensively Rochester is not very strong led by Billy Bagron (7-7-14) and Adam Cozine (4-9-13) respectively. The Mustangs recently made a possible prize winning pickup in retaining the rights to winger Ondrej Prokop who has come through with 3 goals in his first 3 games as a Mustang. He may be the difference between a playoff team and a team who made the season exciting.
Rochester’s star defensive player, Tim Conboy has been out since early in the year due to injury, but T.J. Renskars has filled in admirably as the Mustang bruiser. Rochester doesn’t beat you with flashy plays, they beat you with hard-nosed skating and players who like to grind it out along the boards. This is the brand of hockey once found in Rochester. Yen I-Chen has been their go to goaltender posting a 7-9-2 record with a 3.03 GAA and nice .913 saves percentage. After splitting time with Jon Fallon early on in the year, I-Chen has handled the majority of the duties. This is a team who has a chance at making the playoffs for the first time in awhile, for Rochester faithful it is well deserved. Barring a major fallout in the 2nd half of the season, they will definitely be in the hunt.
Waterloo Black Hawks (8-16-1=17pts): In Waterloo, Black Hawk fans are celebrating 40 years of hockey. Unfortunately, that is about the only thing they are able to celebrate right now. The Black Hawks have struggled, and struggled mightily all season long. In 8 season victories, only 1 has been in regulation. Otherwise, they relied on their star goaltender Josh Siembida to carry them to victory in overtime or a shootout. Siembida was 7-12-1 for Waterloo with a 2.81 GAA and .918 saves percentage, which were fantastic numbers considering the way Waterloo has played. It was good enough to get Siembida called up to the University of North Dakota at the midway point. So the Black Hawks only constant is now gone leaving the job up in the air. Jeff Jakaitis out of Rochester, Minnesota and Beau Fritz, acquired from the Lincoln Stars recently will fight for the position.
The Black Hawks have been very inconsistent all season long. There are many young players and at times, youth can be to blame for this team but lack of execution and indecisiveness has killed this squad. Cole Baron (5-11-16) and Nate Hansen (4-8-12) are the only two Black Hawks in double figures in scoring and Hansen was acquired recently so all his points are not as a Black Hawk. That shows the gaping hole in the offensive zone for this very young team. The defense has been respectable led by a pair of young stars in that of Jim Jensen (1-2-3) and Rob Lehtinen (2-6-8). If this team sticks together into next season there is a chance that they will begin to win, but unfortunately unless a major change occurs, this team is heading nowhere fast.
Sioux City Musketeers (22-5-2=46pts): The Musketeers are balanced from top to bottom. No questions asked. When you play them at the Sioux City Auditorium, don’t count on much past getting beat. Sioux City is 16-0 at home so far this season and there is no real indication that will change this year. The Musketeers come at you in swarms. Brad Zancanaro (14-34-48) leads the charge along with Brandon Schwartz (17-22-39) and Matt Ciancio (13-18-31). There is plenty more where that comes from but there isn’t enough room to mention each one! When talking about the Muskies defense, it is hard not to mention Art Femenella. The 6’8” blue liner catches people’s eyes no matter where he goes.
Ryan Geris (6-9-15) is having a strong season on defense, as is much of the Sioux City defense. B.J. Greaves is maybe the key ingredient to this team as he has contributed offensively (10-10-20) and has been the enforcer for this team alongside Femenella. In goal, Andy Franck and Kris Mayotte have been as good a duo as there has been in the league. Franck is 12-4 with a 2.19 GAA and .931 saves percentage. When Franck rests, Kris Mayotte is just as capable to guard the pipes going 10-1-2 with a 2.45 GAA and .911 saves percentage. All signals indicate the Musketeers will be a playoff team and a championship contender. Can they hang on to the lead with the usual suspects breathing down their neck? Now that is the fun part.
Sioux Falls Stampede (21-7-1=43pts): The Stampede, my preseason pick to win the division and league, are not very far off from expectations. The Stampede and Sioux City have quite a rivalry going and their two teams will probably be right there at the end for the division and league title. The Stampede’s offense is as potent as it always has been but it is led by another league MVP candidate Thomas Vanek (28-22-50). Vanek is a man among boys on the ice and nobody else in the league rivals his skill. Eric Przepiorka (21-12-33) and Marty Sertich (10-21-31) also are key cogs in the Stampede offensive attack. Cody Blanshan and Rico Fatticci are important parts on the defensive end. Fatticci is a recent addition to the roster and has played in 11 games while Blanshan has been very strong all season long.
Kellen Briggs has been the man in net going 17-6-1 but his 3.32 GAA and .909 saves percentage show that the Stampede offense wins a lot of their games. That is the only chink in Sioux Falls armor, their goaltending. It is very good without a doubt, but this team relies heavily on their offense. If the Stampede offense continues to chew up it’s opponents and spit them out, they will be a home ice advantage team in the playoffs. And maybe, just maybe they can oust the Musketeers for first place yet. A great rivalry calls for a great finish.
Omaha Lancers (20-6-2=42pts): Omaha started the season off slow due to a extended road trip to start the season. The Lancers were not able to get things going in the famous Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum for awhile. Since they were able to get some home cookin’ started, they have been as good as anyone. Miikka Jaske (13-13-26) has led the Lancers on offense with Aaron Slattengren (6-18-24) and Marty Guerin (12-8-20) backing him up. Davor Durakovic (1-4-5) has been one of the toughest, physical defensemen in the league this season in his inaugural season in the USHL. One of the two defensive veterans, Chris Harrington (6-13-19) has also played well. The Lancers again are blessed with a dynamic duo in net. Last season the Lancers had Ray Fraser and Marty Magers.
This season, Magers returns and Dominic Vicari is his partner. Magers, the top rated goaltender last season in the league is 12-3-1 on the year with a 1.83 GAA and .919 saves percentage. Vicari is 8-3-1 when starting in net with a 2.12 GAA and .916 saves percentage. The Lancers have been hard on their opponents lately and there isn’t much to say they won’t keep it up. Omaha makes the Western Division what it is. The best division in the league. The Lancers have just as good of a shot to win the division, as does either of the previous opponents. USHL hockey is all about talent and skill and those two facets of hockey will be put on display for these three teams to fight for the title.
Lincoln Stars (17-8-2=36pts): In the land of Lincoln, the Stars are not where their faithful feel they should be. The two-time defending Anderson Cup champion is stuck in 4th place in the Western Division. A place they have not really seen much of since they began play in 1996-1997. The Stars have always been at the top and a slow start has hurt them. The thing is, the Stars aren’t really that far away from being in the race for the division title. Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Omaha are log jammed at the top of the division but Lincoln is just another winning streak away from being in that group as well. To get a feel for how well the Stars have been playing lately, if they were in the Eastern Division they’d be two points behind division leading Cedar Rapids. Lincoln lost many key players from last years team but still have a lot of players who can carry the Stars torch.
Dirk Southern who came to Lincoln by way of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League leads the team in scoring (8-15-23). Billy Hengen, in his 2nd year with the team stands 2nd (9-13-22) while Ryan Potulny (9-12-21) has been a key player as well. The Stars offense does not pack the punch that it has in the past, but they are still very dangerous. Their defense is strong as it always has been. Lee Marvin (1-5-6) returns for a third year and his ferocity and leadership are important. Ryan Swanson, who came to Lincoln from Chicago in the off-season has been a solid addition to the team, Swanson has proven he can play good D while staying out of the penalty box. The Stars top goaltender so far this year has been Nate Ziegelman who has been 9-1 with a sparkling 1.98 GAA and .928 saves percentage. When Ziegelman needs a break, Philippe Lamoureux has been a solid backup. Lamoureux has posted a 5-4-1 record with a 2.28 GAA and .922 saves percentage. The Stars have the talent to join the rest of the crowd above them to make for a finish to remember for years in the West. They are just another winning streak away.
Topeka Scarecrows (10-13-4=24pts): The Topeka Scarecrows are one of the two new teams in the league this season. And surprisingly enough, they have fared well in the league as far as expansion franchises go. They are currently in the running for a playoff spot but the problem is getting the people of Topeka excited about Scarecrow hockey. For the last few years, they were part of a minor league professional league and the fans were stripped of their pros for junior hockey and many have been skeptical to jump on to the USHL ship. Well, they certainly are missing a lot! Vince Bellissimo (19-15-34) is a strong candidate for USHL rookie of the year as he has been their star on offense as well as one of the point’s leaders in the entire league.
Eric Vesely (7-16-23) has played well on offense as well. The Scarecrows have a number of young on the rise stars such as the aforementioned Bellissimo and Erik Fabian (8-4-12). Fabian and Bellissimo team up for quite a duo and Fabian is just now starting to heat up. The biggest weakness for Topeka is their defense. Will Parr (0-2-2) and Phil Angell (2-1-3) lead a group of lesser-known players. Many of the guys on the blue line for the ‘Crows do not have much if any USHL experience and they are at times being eaten alive. In net the Scarecrows have two extremes. A 3 year USHL veteran in Matt Kelly who has gone 6-4-1 with a 3.48 GAA and .873 saves percentage has a college scholarship set in his radar and has provided veteran leadership for the young Eric Aarnio. Aarnio has a shot at being the Scarecrows goalie for another year or two and is getting great tutelage from Kelly. Aarnio so far is 4-8-3 with a 3.48 GAA and .889 saves percentage.
It will be exciting if an expansion team makes it to the playoffs, as it will show the balance this league really carries. If they continue to be competitive and their youngsters continue to develop, I see a playoff birth coming.
Tri-City Storm (9-16-2=20pts): Storm faithful were expecting an improvement over last year’s inaugural campaign that saw them make the 2nd round of the Clark Cup playoffs before being ousted by Lincoln. But the Storm has regressed quite a bit from last season. Konrad Reeder (13-7-20) is their main star on offense while Clayton Carson (3-14-17) and Patrick Borgestad (5-5-10) have shown flashes of beginning to put it together, at times. Defensively Bryan Schmidt (3-9-12) has led a defense that has struggled heavily this season. Schmidt is the last player from the 1999-2000 Twin Cities Vulcan’s Junior A Championship team and has been strong on defense but the rest of the team has been very inconsistent. Jacob Schuman and Noah Ruden are rotating on goaltending duties. Schuman has gone 3-4 with a 3.84 GAA and .863 saves percentage while Ruden has struggled even more at 4-13-2 with a 3.63 GAA and .901 saves percentage.
Ruden has the talent to do great things but has not been blessed with top-notch talent in front of him. Ruden played last year for the Dubuque Fighting Saints and started the season off with the Tulsa Crude, the Saints were at the bottom of the barrel last season and the Crude had struggled to only 1 victory before Ruden was traded to the Storm. The Storm are a tough bunch and they as well as nobody in this league, are pushovers by any means but this team isn’t headed to the playoffs and will probably fight with Tulsa to stay out of the cellar of the league.
Tulsa Crude (5-20-3=13pts): Bringing up the caboose in the USHL is the expansion Tulsa Crude. Tulsa previously played in Dubuque as the storied Fighting Saints of the league. The last few years of their existence saw a lot of struggles and very little success on the ice as far as winning goes. In their first year in Tulsa, nothing has changed at all. The Crude have not done much right on the ice this season struggling to only five wins. Their offense isn’t there, the defense isn’t there and when there is little defense, there isn’t much the goaltending can do. Jordan Pennington (10-11-21) leads the team in scoring with his pesky little frame. Jim Tudor (4-6-10) is the only other player in double figures in scoring.
Defensively the Crude have struggled but they do have two bright youngsters in that of Steve Collova (2-5-7) and Brandon Cunico (0-3-3). These two have a very bright future and a chance to move on to the next level as many of these individuals do but this team is not clicking. Ross Cherry has taken his lumps in net going 3-9-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .915 saves percentage. Cherry’s statistics are not all that bad if you do not look at the won/loss record. Tulsa has endured many roster changes and more than likely will go through a lot more during this next off-season. The Crude will probably finish last in the West and last in the league.
Collectively this league will probably see more than 100 players taken into Collegiate hockey and some of them such as Thomas Vanek, Bobby Goepfert, Vince Bellissimo are the type of hockey players who truly have a shot at the NHL someday. Not all teams are equal in this league but that certainly is not indicative of each and every one of these players’ abilities.
There is a lot more to winning than just having talent. Each player in this league excelled in his High School league or another Junior Hockey league enough to come to play in the best Junior Hockey league in America. Both divisions appear to have races that will come down to the finish, which is what makes this league so great. The balance at the top is so widespread that nobody is walking away with anything. It’s a finish that not only I, but every other true USHL faithful will be on the edges of their seats waiting for.