Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lincoln - Fargo Playoff Preview

The Stars and Fargo will begin their USHL second round best-of-five playoff series Wednesday night at the Ice Box in Lincoln, NE. The Stars won their first round playoff series against Sioux Falls in four games, 3-1. Fargo swept the Omaha Lancers in their first round series, 3-0. In four games against Sioux Falls, the Stars scored 17 goals, and gave up 9 goals. In three games against Omaha, the Force scored 14 goals and gave up 7 goals. Two of the top goal scorers in the playoffs will be playing in this series, as Lincoln forward Garrett Vermeersch has scored 6 goals in four playoff games, while Fargo forward Andy Taranto has scored 5 goals in three playoff games.

During the regular season, the Force and the Stars played a total of seven times, with Lincoln winning six times. It's a cliche often used in the world of hockey, but you really do have to throw those regular season games out the window. It's a new season, and both teams are playing at a very high level. What happened back in October of last year, or even April of this year, really doesn't mean a lot right now. The Stars aren't going to work less in practice because they won 6 out of 7 from the Force this season. I'm sure they understand that they will have to play their best game to move on to the USHL finals.

Head Coach Dean Blais has his team playing a "lunch pail" sort of game. They might not be flashy, but his players are dependable, consistent, and in and game out. Shift-to-shift, they work extremely hard. I've heard some folks in the media compare this years Fargo squad to the 1996-97 expansion Lincoln Stars team that won the Clark Cup. Fargo is still a long way from winning the Clark Cup, but they have certainly turned heads this season. Sweeping the defending champion Omaha Lancers was unexpected, but at the same time, not surprising.

Fargo has one of the best young goaltenders in junior hockey, and his name is Mike Lee. Lee is also one of the top rated NHL draft eligible goaltender prospects, and could be a first or second round pick this spring. He has the ability to steal games the Force would have otherwise lost. In the playoffs, nothing is more important than a "hot" goaltender, and Lee appears to be warming up. In three games against Omaha, Lee was 3-0, and posted a 2.27 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Those are extremely good numbers considering the offensive firepower the Lancers had this season.

I've mentioned him previously, but the main offensive weapon of the Force is forward Andy Taranto. His hockey story is really interesting. He started his USHL career with the Omaha Lancers back in 2006, and after 22 games with the Lancers, he was traded to the now defunct Ohio Junior Blue Jackets. In a total of 31 games in 2006-'07, Taranto scored one goal. Last season with the Jr. Blue Jackets, Taranto scored just seven goals in 47 games, and was -11 for the season. After the Jr. Blue Jackets folded, and Fargo acquired some of the Ohio players (which included Taranto), Taranto started this season with the Force. The move to Fargo did absolute wonders for Taranto, as he scored 34 goals and 25 assists for a total of 59 points in 60 games with the Force. His 34 goals was good enough to tie for first place overall in the USHL regular season. He was an incredible +33 on the season, and was first overall with 6 shorthanded goals scored. Amazing numbers for a guy who had previously scored just 8 goals in 78 USHL games before this season. This is why Taranto SHOULD be a marked man anytime he is on the ice. In three playoff games, Taranto has put 22 shots on goal. The next closest player in terms of shots on goal in three games has only 8 shots on goal. Fargo isn't a one man team, but it's obvious that Taranto is a HUGE part of the Force offense, and his presence on the ice has to be respected at all times. I would not be surprised to see Head Coach Jimmy McGroarty specifically put a defensive specialist like Garrett Peterson or Chris Forfar on Taranto whenever he is on the ice (especially at the Ice Box where the home team gets the last opportunity to make line changes after a whistle).

Fargo scored more shorthanded goals (17) than any other team in the USHL this past season, while Lincoln gave up more shorthanded goals (15) than any other USHL team. Taranto is a big reason why Fargo was tops in SH goals scored, and considering the problems the Stars have had this season (and playoffs) with giving up the random shorty, the Stars will have to be very cognizant of Taranto and the Force PK unit.

Some playoff numbers to chew on:

Fargo = 4.67 goals per game (3 games played)
Lincoln = 4.25 goals per game (4 games played)

Fargo = 30.33 shots on goal per game
Lincoln = 37.75 shots on goal per game

Fargo = 35.67 shots against per game
Lincoln = 31.00 shots against per game

Fargo = 5-20 on the powerplay (25%)
Lincoln = 1-19 on the powerplay (5.3%)

Fargo = 17.33 penalty minutes per game
Lincoln = 20.75 penalty minutes per game

This is going to be a fantastic series to watch. Both teams are playing some the best hockey they've played this season. There is some bad blood between these two teams, but at this point in the playoffs...every team hates one another. This ain't intramural chess. This is USHL playoff hockey. You better bring it every game, or you're gonna get beat down and embarrassed. I can't wait to watch it in person. Hope to see you all at the Ice Box. Bring as many friends and family as you can. Be supportive of the black and blue, and more importantly....BE LOUD! Go Stars.

Faceoff is at 7:05pm

Your thoughts on this series? Can the Stars shut down Taranto? With the long layoff, do you expect the Force to come out slow tonight? Who starts in net for the Stars in Game 1?

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