Beginning Thursday (April 14) night, eight USHL teams will begin the march to the Clark Cup, awarded each year to the league champions. The first round kicks off with the top four teams in each conference playing best-of- five series (1v4, 2v3). While last year’s champ, the Sioux Falls Stampede will try to defend their title, they enter the playoffs as decided underdogs, the fourth seeds in the West, while the top three regular season teams all came from the east.
1 Tri-City Storm vs 4 Sioux Falls Stampede
As mentioned above, the Stampede are the defending champs, but this season did not go very smoothly, and they enter the postseason as the only remaining team to have allowed more goals than they scored on the season, finishing with a -10 differential. Further, they were downright poor on special teams, their 14.2% power play conversion rate good for 14th out of 17 teams in the league. Their 81.1% penalty kill success rate was likewise ranked 14th.
The Stampede have two pro prospects in C Jack Becker, a seventh round pick of Boston’s last year and netminder Ales Stezka, a Minnesota Wild prospect. Becker has good size, but failed to impress in his first year in the circuit and is scheduled to attend Wisconsin next fall. Stezka struggled all year, to the tune of a .893 save percentage and lost his starting job to Stefanos Lekkas long ago. He also had a rough outing at the World Juniors for his native Slovakia. The team’s best performers this year have been overaged Parker Tuomie, one of eight 30 goal scorers in the league and Joe Rutkowski, an offensive blueliner who is committed to Ferris State.
Looking to dethrone the champs are the West’s top team, the Tri-City Storm. A well rounded team that finished +19 in goal differential and with the best power play and second best PK in the conference. The Storm only have one drafted player in Oilers’ prospect John Marino, a mobile, two-way defender with a solid point shot. Skewing younger, this team is loaded with intriguing 2016 draft prospects, none more so than power winger Wade Allison, a prolific shooter who finished fifth in the league in shots taken on his way to 25 goals scored. Scouts will also be looking at fellow right wingers Brandon Duhaime and Walker Duehr, both of whom are full bodied players with some scoring ability. For pure performance, keep an eye on undersized scoere Carson Meyer and Swedish overaged defenseman Matthias Goransson.
As both teams will be playing with solid netminders (Lekkas and Jake Kielly for Tri-City), expect the scoring depth of the Storm to carry the day. I would project a sweep, but the 8-2 finish to Sioux Falls’ season is enough for me to grant them one win.
Prediction: Tri-City in four
2 Lincoln Stars vs 3 Waterloo Black Hawks
A relatively even series on the face of it with the two teams finishing within two standings points of one another as well as very similar goal differentials. If there is an edge, it is in net, with Lincoln’s Peyton Jones, one of the top draft eligible netminders in the league, who has a 16 point save percentage lead over Waterloo’s Cale Morris.
While the Black Hawks carry three offensive weapons in Sam McCormick, Ryan Lohin and Nick Swaney, their two drafted players are more support options, as Carolina prospect David Cotton is more of a two-way threat than a potent weapon, while Anaheim prospect Garret Metcalfe is the backup netminder who has struggled since coming over in trade from Madison. Draft eligible prospects with Waterloo are limited to a pair of blueliners in Sam Rossini, a big stay-at-home type and Jake Ryczek, who is undersized, but deadly from the blueline, having averaged over one point per game since arriving in trade from Sioux City. He is a very good skater and excels in the transition game.
Lincoln features three high end playmakers in Tanner Laczynski, Grant Jozefek and Ludvig Hoff the first two of which should be of interest to draft watchers. Laczynski is one of the most sure-handed passers in the league, while Jozefek does a little bit of everything and plays a rough and ready ga,e in spite of being mildly undersized.
Although a very even matchup all things considered, the goaltending advantage lies with Lincoln and the big and economical Peyton Jones and that should be enough.
Prediction: Lincoln in five
1 Cedar Rapids RoughRiders vs 4 Bloomington Thunder
Cedar Rapids won fully two thirds of their games this year to finish with the best record in the USHL, while Bloomington came alive in the season’s second half to earn a playoff berth.
In all honesty, Bloomington is not a great team for prospect watching as they win with a depth approach, with only one skater finishing in the league’s top 20 in points, but with four in the top 37. Leading scorer Tarek Baker might elicit some interest as a potential seventh round stocking stuffer as a hard worker with some puck skills, as might blueliner Wyatt Kalynuk a rail-thin puck mover who is not viewed as a trusted defensive option by his own coach and was passed up in the draft once already. That said, Michael Mattson, a high school star in Minnesota joined the team late in their season and shows a lot of tools including a hard shot and plus hockey sense.
Cedar Rapids has one drafted player in the lightning fast Karch Bachman, a Florida prospect, but he has not played since February 21 and I have heard nothing to suggest that will change soon. What they have is a netminder who was the best mix of reliability and performance in the league in Ben Blacker, who would elicit draft love if he were not 5-10” and winger Ross Colton, who gained notoriety for a star turn at the USHL Top Prospect game, where he showcased a bullet shot and great offensive instincts. He had been passed over in the draft before, but after doubling his offensive production to finish second in the league in scoring, he will be taken this year. Hugh McGing and Jack Ahcan were great performers for Cedar Rapids this year, although both will be held back due to neither standing above 5-8”. On the other hand, forwards Matt Filipe and Matt Gosiewski both have the requisite professional figures and Filipe has enough individual skills, namely plus puck skills and a good physical game, to garner plenty of NHL attention.
In summary, for all of Bloomington’s depth, Cedar Rapids has just as much, but better. This has the potential to be an entertaining series, but the RoughRiders should come out on top.
Prediction: Cedar Rapids in four
2 Green Bay Gamblers vs 3 Dubuque Fighting Saints
Although the two teams finished only a single point a part in the standings, they vastly different paths to get there. Whereas the Gamblers were the stingiest team in the league, having surrendered only 135 goals on the season, Dubuque led the league in scoring, with 209 markers.
For Green Bay, then, it is no surprise that all of their top players are defensive players, with Rangers prospect Adam Huska most notable, finishing the season with the best save percentage in the league. Huska tracks pucks very well has quick reactions and excels at sealing posts. Ducks prospect Matthew Berkovitz is less exciting as a pure stay-at-home blueliner. He is only noticeable when he makes mistakes and he is very rarely noticed. Andrew Peeke is the top draft eligible player for Green Bay, another plus defensive defenseman, but one who has a very strong point shot, skates well and makes a plus first pass.
Dubuque has only one drafted prospect in defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf, an intelligent blueliner with a plus shot. The team lacks any true game breaking offensive talents, but have a number of good pieces like Nathan Sucese, the Smith twins, Mitchell and Evan and Shane Kavanagh. Of greater interest are a pair of draft eligible prospects, William Knierim, one of the more aggressive power forwards in this draft class, and Michael O’Leary. Knierim is a classic in-your-face agitator with the size to suit the role, while O’Leary is a more understated type, still hard to play against, but with more offensive skills.
As interesting as this offense vs defense matchup should be, I fully expect the superior defensive team to end up on top.
Prediction: Green Bay in three.
The latter Rounds
If my early round predictions play out, Tri-City will play Lincoln for the Western Conference crown, while Cedar Rapids plays Green Bay for the Eastern title. In other words, no underdogs. In this scenario, I expect the favored Tri-City squad to beat Lincoln in the west, and for our first upset with the defensive power houses from Green Bay to beat Cedar Rapids. Green Bay will then win the Clark Cup for the first time since Nick and Jordan Schmaltz played there in 2011-12.