Photo courtesy of Neutral Zone Hockey
The final seed in the East versus the top team in the West. David versus Goliath. Your hand versus the Pringles can. We’ve heard this story before: the underdog with faith on their side, against the monolith who seems undefeatable. From the start of the USHL season up until this week, the Chicago Steel had barreled through almost every defense and goaltender on their way to a spot in the finals. How, then, did the Fargo Force manage to shut them out for the first time this season, in the first game of the 2021 Clark Cup Final? There might be a lot more answers than can fit in an article, but you can read below the three main reasons this happened tonight, rather than any other night.
1. Bottom-Six Experience
The Fargo Force’s firepower in the top half of their lineup leaves much to be desired, with Tristan Broz being their most prolific scorer at under a point per game (51 in 54). In contrast, the Chicago Steel have a 101-point scorer in Sean Farrell (2020, 5th round, MTL), as well as another four players above the point-per-game mark – the 2021 NHL Draft crop of Matthew Coronato, Josh Doan and Matthew Samoskevich, along with Erik Middendorf (2018, undrafted). Fargo knew, coming into this game, that they were not going to win the superstar matchup. Instead, the team relied on the significant age gap between their bottom six and the Steel’s. Here is each team’s bottom six by birth year:
Fargo Force: 2001-2000-2000
Chicago Steel: 2000-2003-2003
The Force’s added size, experience and durability in the bottom half of their lineup allowed them to play favorable matchups, pairing their top defensive players against the Sean Farrell line and allowing Tristan Broz and his line mates to dominate offensively by sending them out for offensive zone faceoffs. Meanwhile, the Steel’s undersized and very young bottom-six did not manage to remain focused and disciplined throughout the game, which culminated in Dawson Pasternak’s (2003) interference penalty with three minutes left in the third period. As the game went on and the Force’s shutout continued, the Steel’s players seemed more and more uneasy, as their most effective weapon had been neutralized. Fargo had the depth and experience to make it work; Chicago didn’t. 3-0 final score, with the Force’s players hollering from the bench after every defensive play all the way through the third period.
2. Jack Peart and Scott Morrow
It is always difficult to pin an entire win on two defenders, but the way Jack Peart and Scott Morrow handled themselves against the most prolific offence in the USHL needs much more recognition; Morrow was extremely efficient in his own end, disrupting plays with an active stick and following the play expertly and intently. He was also the main contributor to the Force’s ability to get the puck cleanly out of their zone and into the opponent’s end. His crisp breakout passes, his tremendous skating ability and his vision in both ends made him a key offensive facilitator against the Chicago Steel’s underwhelming blue line.
Jack Peart, on his end, was consistently creative upon zone entries, finding soft spots in coverage with ease and exploiting space expertly, as he showed on the 2-0 goal he scored in the game:
His responsibility in his own end, his understanding of rush flows and patterns, his timing on step-ups and rush activations, all these tools were on full display in this game; as this series drags on, Jack Peart will continue making his name known and contribute to Fargo’s attempts to suffocate the Steel’s lively offense.
3. A Red Hot Backup Goaltender
When 21-year-old undrafted goaltender Andrew Miller first stepped in between the pipes midway through Fargo’s first game of the conference finals against Sioux City, it was only because lead goaltender Brennan Boynton had received a game misconduct for getting involved in a fight. He stopped 18 of 19 shots that game, Fargo won 6-1, and he went on to receive the next two starts after Boynton was dealt a two-game suspension for the fighting incident.
The same day, Miller stepped back on the ice and stopped 34 of 34 shots to eliminate the Musketeers and propel Fargo to the Clark Cup Final. He then repeated the exploit against the top offensive team in the USHL, stopping 20 shots for his second shutout in a row and allowing only one goal on 73 shots in the most important games of the playoffs.
When your goaltender is on like Andrew Miller has been these last few games, the defenders and forwards feel a weight off their shoulders and can play with more comfort, knowing that their mistakes will likely be covered. Hot streaks happen to every goaltender, and despite Boynton being available for next game, the Fargo Force would have interest in seeing how far Miller can continue this run of form.
Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more of my thoughts on hockey!
Subscribe on YouTube @HK Scouting for my monthly video prospect reports!