The Lincoln Stars will wrap up the first half of the 2012-13 USHL regular season this weekend when the take on the Musketeers in Sioux City on Friday night, and then the Youngstown Phantoms at the IceBox in Lincoln on Saturday evening. Puck drops at 7:00pm CST Friday night, and at 7:05pm CST on Saturday.
The Stars are currently 18-9-3 (39 points), and are in fourth place in the USHL Western Conference. Click here to view the updated USHL standings.
Lincoln's first opponent this weekend, the Sioux City Musketeers, have a record of 6-19-7 (19 points) and are firmly entrenched in last place in the USHL Western Conference. The Stars are 3-0-0 in three games against the Muskies this season, and have outscored them 9-2 in their last two meetings. This will be the fourth of eight contests between Lincoln and Sioux City this season.
To say the Muskies are struggling this season is an understatement. Other than Team USA, who have played five less games than Sioux City, the Muskies have the worst record in the USHL. Scoring, goaltending, special teams...it's all been bad. Having said that, the Muskies have played the Stars pretty tight in two of their three games this season. They are 5-8-2 at home at the Tyson Event Center, but an abysmal 1-11-5 on the road.
Earlier this season, Muskies GM and head coach Brett Larson made a number of trades to better his team in hopes they could raise their sinking ship. That didn't happen. In fact, this past week Larson traded a number of players away to winning hockey clubs like Waterloo and Green Bay in return for draft picks. The recent moves indicate that the Muskies are already preparing for next year and have given up on making the playoffs this season. Gone are J.T. Stenglein and Tanner Pond, and in return the Muskies get draft picks to build for next season. It would not surprise me if Sioux City continues to move some of their more high-profile players to teams who are wanting to add pieces in hopes for a long playoff run.
The Phantoms have been and up and down team this season. Some nights they look great, other nights not so much. They have one of the top young forwards in the USHL in Austin Cangelosi, but not much scoring depth after that. They have the league's worst powerplay unit (12.95%), although Lincoln isn't much better at 15.09%, good enough for 13th "best" out 16 teams.
One familiar name in the Phantoms' lineup is forward Markus McCrea, who played for the Lincoln Stars last season. In 51 games for Lincoln in 2011-12, McCrea scored 18 points (8g, 10a) to go along with 99 PIM's. McCrea, who was a victim of the USHL overager rule and was not protected by Lincoln this past offseason, has had a very productive first half of the season already for Youngstown. In 29 games for the Phantoms, McCrea has scored 15 points (9g, 6a) with 89 PIM's. So McCrea has already scored more goals in only 29 games with the Phantoms than he did in 51 games for Lincoln last season. I'm sure Markus will be pretty motivated to play well against the team that left him unprotected. If he's in the starting lineup Saturday night, I hope the home fans give him a good round of applause for his time in a Stars uniform.
The Phantoms have to be cursing the USHL schedule makers coming into this weekend. I almost feel sorry for them as they will play Friday night in Chicago against the Steel before having to hop right back on the bus afterwards to drive 8 hours to Lincoln. That's brutal.
In my opinion, four points are definitely attainable this weekend. Anything less than three points will be a disappointment. The Muskies haven't played well against Lincoln this season for the most part, and they have traded away a lot of key players for draft picks. The Phantoms will be a tired bunch after playing Friday night in Chicago, so the Stars should have their way with a Youngstown team suffering from bus legs. The Stars are 4-0-0 this season again both teams, and have outscored them 18-6. On paper, this should be an easy four points, but that's why they play the games.
Hard to believe we are already at the halfway point of the regular season. 32 games played, 32 more to go. The USHL season is certainly a marathon and not a sprint. There's still a lot of hockey yet to be played.