The Lincoln Stars will play only one game this weekend, but it's a BIG one. Friday night at the IceBox, the Stars will play host to the eastern conference Dubuque Fighting Saints, the top team in the entire USHL.
Arguably, this will be a battle between the top two teams in the USHL right now. In terms of winning percentage, Dubuque and Lincoln are #1 and #2 in the league, respectively. Both teams are in first place in their conferences.
If you can't make it out to this Friday evening to watch this game live, you can follow the boxscores online via Pointstreak, listen to Stars radio announcer Mike Melbye on 93.7 FM "The Ticket," or watch the game on FASTHockey for a fee.
The Stars are currently 11-2-0 (22 points), and are tied for first place in the USHL Western Conference with the Waterloo Blackhawks who are 11-3-0. Click here to view the updated USHL standings.
The Fighting Saints have a record of 13-1-1 (27 points), and are in first place in the USHL Eastern Conference. This will be the first of two games the Stars and Fighting Saints will play against one another this season. Lincoln will travel to Dubuque to wrap up the mini two game series on Saturday, November 24th.
Like the Stars, the Fighting Saints were undefeated (8-0-0) in the month of October. Both of their losses (one in OT) have come on the road, and neither loss was by more than one goal. Without a doubt, the Fighting Saints are the best team in USHL right now. As good as the Stars have played to start the season, the Fighting Saints have played even better. When you break some basic numbers down, both teams are very similar in some regards:
Dubuque winning percentage: .900% (#1 in USHL)
Lincoln winning percentage: .846% (#2 in USHL)
Dubuque: 54 goals scored in 15 games played (3.60 average per game)
Lincoln: 49 goals scored in 13 games played (3.76 average per game)
Dubuque: 25 goals against in 15 games played (1.67 average per game)
Lincoln: 28 goals against in 13 games played (2.15 average per game)
No team in the USHL plays better team defense than the Dubuque Fighting Saints...and it's not even close. The Saints have surrendered a total of 326 shots against in 15 games played, which is an average of 21.7 shots per game. That's an incredible number. In comparison, the Stars have given up a total of 366 shots on goal in 13 games played, which is an average of 28.2 shots per game. To say the Saints are stingy in terms of shots against is an understatement. They've only been outshot in one game this season.
It's not all about offense in Dubuque, as the Saints have a very potent offense including one of the top forwards in the USHL right now in Mike Szmatula. Szmatula, who was named USHL offensive player of the week a few days ago, is on a huge tear right now having scored 10 points (5g, 5a), in his last three games. Through 15 games played, Szmatula has racked up a total of 25 points (13g, 12a) and is +12. Szmatula is currently the leading scorer in the USHL. I've been told by Dubuque fans that I know that Szmatula is one of the most talented offensive players Dubuque has had since they entered the league in 2010.
The game Friday at the IceBox marks the return of former Stars defenseman Brandon "Fear the Beard" Carlson who plays both defense and forward for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Carlson played 50 regular season games for the Stars last season while accumulating 11 points (all assists) and 71 penalty minutes. Through 14 games with the Fighting Saints, Carlson has four points (2g, 2a) with 38 penalty minutes. Last weekend in Dubuque's 5-1 win over Muskegon, Brandon racked up 3 points (2g, 1a) and a fighting major to complete the "Gordie Howe hat trick."
Carlson was a victim of the USHL overager rule where teams can roster only four players born in 1992 this season. The Stars chose to protect overagers Jackson Teichroeb, Paul LaDue, Will Suter, and Eric Scheid, so Carlson and a few other players born in '92 (Markus McCrae, Bob Kinne, Logan Smith) from last season were left to look elsewhere to play USHL hockey this season. I'm hoping Brandon is in the starting lineup this Friday at the IceBox so all the fans can give him a good round of applause for his time in Lincoln last season. From what I've been told, he was a very popular player in the locker room and I know for a fact he was a fan-favorite last year.
The Stars will finally have a full roster this Friday as Luke Johnson, Justin Woods, and Michael Bitzer are back in the lineup after winning gold for Team USA at the 2012 World Junior A Challenge. I'm not sure what the coaches have planned, but since goaltender Jackson Teichroeb has been getting so many starts as of late, I'd assume Bitzer will get the nod this Friday against Dubuque. As far as I know, there are no major injuries or league suspensions the team is dealing with right now. Forward Michael Bunn is still on the injured reserve list, but he could finally get back on the ice later this month.
This will be a huge test for the Stars, and should be a great matchup between two quality teams. I imagine the Stars will be pretty fired up for this game considering they are coming off a disappointing 5-2 road loss last Saturday to the Sioux Fall Stampede. I'm sure they've been worked hard in practice this week and are looking forward to getting back on the ice to prove themselves against the top team in the USHL.
Get your tickets now if you don't already have them because this will be one heck of a game. Also, the Stars will be wearing specially designed pink jerseys Friday night to benefit the American Cancer Society. The annual "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Jersey Auction" will be held after the game when the game-worn jerseys will be up for auction. Make sure you stick around after the game for the auction and donate some bucks to a great cause.