Both teams have clinched spots in the postseason and it looks like Sioux City and Sioux Falls will eventually do the same in the West, since Des Moines and Lincoln are tied for fifth place and trail fourth-place Sioux Falls by 19 points in the standings.
Last-place Fargo could be eliminated from contention in the coming week and Tri-City, while gallantly recovering from a tough start and a coaching change, is close to being on the “outs,” as well.
While close to playing for pride, the Force have been one of the hottest teams in the USHL, as late, having won its last three games.
Two of the wins have come because of “bonus hockey,” a 4-3 overtime win over Sioux City Feb. 26, and a 5-4 shootout victory over Tri-City on Saturday, March 1. Fargo completed a weekend sweep of the Storm with a 4-3 win on Sunday, March 2.
While remaining first in the West, Omaha had opportunities to strengthen its hold on its top spot and overall league lead, but struggled in Wisconsin and Illinois over the weekend. After a 4-1 victory in Green Bay Friday, Feb. 28, the Gamblers came back the next night with the last three consecutive goals in a 5-2 win over the Lancers to split the two-game series.
Omaha went on from Green Bay for a Sunday afternoon game in Chicago, where the waiting Steel prevailed 5-3. Jake Bunz scored the game winner five minutes into the final period in Chicago’s come-from-behind victory.
Austin Pooley of Omaha scored his first career USHL goal in the loss, which came 13 minutes into the third period and moved the Lancers within 4-3 of the Steel at that point in the game.
Meanwhile in the East, while the Indiana Ice has a clear cut edge for the conference lead, just six standings points separate the number two and number five teams in the conference.
Cedar Rapids and defending Clark Cup champion Dubuque are deadlocked for second place with 60 points, 11 fewer than the Ice.
Chicago and Green Bay are tied for fourth place with 54 points, and one of those teams would not make the playoffs, if first-round action started today.
Indiana is the owner of wins in its last three consecutive contests, a 5-4 victory over Team USA on Sunday, Feb. 23, a 6-2 conquest of Waterloo on Friday, Feb. 28, and a 4-1 defeat of Chicago on Saturday, March 1.
Saturday’s victory came in Indiana’s annual “Pack the House Night for Charity,” when 12,100 fans jammed the Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch. The turnout was the largest for a USHL game this season.
Denis Smirnov scored a pair of goals for the Ice in the win; the game winner in the second period and an insurance tally in the third.
“Playing tonight in front of over 12,000 fans was a great experience,” Smirnov said after the game. “Even though I am smaller than many other skaters, I do not look at their size. I just keep playing my game.”
The contest was the tenth “Pack the House for Charity” game for Indiana, which now has a 6-4-0 record in the special event, which has annually attracted more than 11,000 fans to the downtown Indianapolis arena.
An all-time North American junior hockey attendance record 14,892 fans came out for the 2005 contest.
A portion of the proceeds of this year’s event was donated to the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent, Ronald McDonald House of Indiana and The Villages.
ETC.: A long-time official will be leaving the USHL this year, as Johnathan Morrison finishes work in the league after more than 20 years blowing a whistle for the league. The 39-year old Morrison, a native of Mason City, Iowa, has worked four Clark Cup championship series during his time in the USHL and has become one of the more recognized names among the league’s officiating roster. Primarily a linesman during his career, Morrison has also worn the orange stripe in the league as a referee. He hopes to scale back his schedule, but will continue working in college hockey and in the AHL.