USHL Playoffs Primer and Regular Campaign Review
By Kevin Wickersham
With Saturday’s USHL regular season finish the Clark Cup Playoffs are upon us. For those new to the league here’s how it works. The top four spots in each conference qualify. The number one and four seeds from each conference face off, as do the second and third seeds. Each series – the Conference Semi-Finals, Conference Finals, and Clark Cup Finals (West winner vs. East winner), is a best-of-five format.
The first round stacks up like this:
Western Conference Semi-Finals
SIOUX CITY (1) vs. DES MOINES (4)
Sioux City Musketeers (87 points) – top seed in the Western Conference
Finnish right wing and Boston College commit Eeli Tolvanen built upon his red-hot February by adding seven goals and seven assists in 13 March and April Musketeer contests to close out the regular season. A major factor in Sioux City taking the 2016-17 Anderson Cup, the USHL version of the Presidents' Trophy for the team totaling the most points in the standings. A Boston College commit. Likely will be one of the first forwards selected in June, perhaps in the top five. Ranked seventh among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings. Maintained a regular season point-per-game pace (1.04) with 30 goals and 24 assists in 52 games. Led the league with 246 shots, 41 more than his nearest competitor Fargo’s Hank Crone.
Minnesota State-Mankato commit Matiss Kivlenieks is a likely candidate for the Goaltender of the Year Award after a fantastic 36-7-4-2 record with Sioux City and finishing with the league-lead in goals-against average (1.85), save percentage (.932%), and wins with six more than Dubuque’s Jaxon Castor. The Latvian netminder also had five shutouts on the year.
Des Moines Buccaneers (76 points) – fourth seed in the Western Conference.
6-2, 177-pound center Isaac Johnson, considered one of the top Des Moines prospects was named to the U.S. Junior Select Team for the World Junior A Challenge in November, and the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in December. Having recently turned 18 years old, Johnson has time to develop but started well with 14 goals and 14 assists in his first USHL campaign. Top Buccaneer scorer left wing David Keefer had 46 points (27 assists and tied for the team lead with 19 goals) in 59 games.
Des Moines defenseman Colin Ugbekile is another promising prospect considered one of the USHL’s best eligible for the 2018 NHL draft. The 17-year-old 6-1, 168-pound German rearguard scored three goals and eleven assists in his rookie year with the Buccaneers.
Western Conference Semi-Finals
WATERLOO (2) vs. FARGO (3)
Waterloo Black Hawks (84 points) – second seed in the Western Conference.
Shane Bowers started March as hot as his February had been with two goals and six assists for Waterloo in his first five games of the month, but the dangerous center was held off the scoreboard in all but one more contest through the end of the campaign, managing two goals and two assists in his last eight. Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings place him at 13 among North American skaters. The 17-year-old Halifax native had 22 goals and 29 assists in all 60 Black Hawk games, far outpacing his 56-game USHL totals (15 G, 18 A) of last season. His shots-per-game average also rose dramatically to 2.70 from last year’s 1.96. Committed to Boston University, the 6-1, 170-pound center should be a mid-to-late first round NHL draft pick this June.
Center Alex Limoges ended the season with the most total points of any Black Hawk this campaign, having joined Waterloo from Tri-City mid-year and amassing 56 points between both teams (22 G, 34 A) good for eighth-best in the league. In 19 games with Waterloo the Penn State commit totaled nine goals and 16 assists (1.35 points-per-game).
Fargo Force (77 points) – third seed in the Western Conference
Fargo’s lethal trio of captain and center Blake Lizotte, left wing Hank Crone who will attend Boston University, and center Jack Adams finished second, third, and fifth respectively in league scoring. Adams, a 6-5, 211-pound center and Union commit, led the USHL in goals with 36 and ranked in the league’s top-ten with a plus-24 rating, identical to that of teammate and St. Cloud State commit Lizotte who was second in the circuit with 46 assists. Crone’s 205 shots ranked second in the USHL to Eeli Tolvanen. Each averaged more than a point-per-game for the Force (Lizotte 1.16, Crone 1.13, and Adams 1.05).
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
CHICAGO (1) vs. YOUNGSTOWN (4)
Chicago Steel (81 points) – top seed in the Eastern Conference
At left wing Reggie Lutz led the Steel’s well-balanced offense with 24 goals and 23 assists in 58 games, and was tops on the team in shots with 180. A bit undersized at 5-10, 180 pounds, the Minnesota State, Mankato commit scored at a point-per-game pace with the NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs during last year’s playoffs (9 G, 3 A, 12 games). Second-leading Steel scorer center Jake Jeremko (17 G, 29 A, 59 games) will also be attending MSU-Mankato.
On the left side of the blue line, pint-sized Yale commit Graham Lillibridge posted impressive numbers, particularly on the power play with 14 assists, tied for third in the league among defensemen. His overall total of 24 assists placed him tenth for defensemen. At 5-9, 144 pounds he does not fit the prototypical physical mold, but put up respectable numbers and at 18 years-of-age has time to grow. In all, the Steel ranked third in scoring with 196 goals during the 2016-17 campaign.
The Steel have a solid duo in goal of Czech-native Ales Stezka, eighth in the league in goals-against-average at 2.28, a .916 SV% and record of 21-10-1-2, and late season acquisition Dayton Rasmussen (17-16-2-1, 2.45 GAA, .912 SV% including his time with Chicago and Tri-Cities) ranked sixth among North American goaltenders on Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings.
Youngstown Phantoms (74 points) – fourth seed in the Eastern Conference
Phantom goalie Ivan Kulbakov excelled this campaign with a 30-16-4-1 record, 1.93 goals-against-average (good for second in the league), tied for a USHL-best five shutouts, and a .919 save percentage. It’s not a stretch to say he led Youngstown, ranked at 12 in team scoring, to the playoffs. Their top scorer, center Nicolas Werbik tied for 34th in the league with 39 points (18 G, 21 A). Conversely, the Phantoms allowed the second fewest goals over the regular schedule in large part to the efforts of their 20-year-old Belarusian netminder.
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
DUBUQUE (2) vs. MUSKEGON (3)
Dubuque Fighting Saints (79 points) – second seed in the Eastern Conference
The Fighting Saints’ potent offense includes Northeastern commit Zach Solow at center, a Florida native who led the league in points (69) and assists (51) and finished second in average points per game (1.23), center and St. Cloud State commit Cole Guttman who tied for eighth in the league in scoring (27 G, 27 A), and future Notre Dame left wing Colin Theisen finishing fourth in the league with 61 points (1.07 per game) and a USHL second-best 35 goals. Dubuque was second to only Waterloo in scoring with 201 goals.
Hailing from Guelph, Ontario, Patrick Kudla contributes scoring on defense, totaling a third-best 38 points and fourth-best 30 assists among league defensemen. The Arizona Coyotes’ 6th round pick in 2016, Kudla will be attending nearby Arizona State University. Also an ASU commit, Phoenix native Jaxon Castor tends goal for the Fighting Saints (30-13-3-1, 2.35 GAA, .902 SV%).
Muskegon Lumberjacks (79 points) – third seed in the Eastern Conference
Keith Petruzzelli, the top North American goalie according to Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings shined late in the campaign for Muskegon, shaving even more points off his goals-against-average which was somewhat bloated from a rough start. March and early April saw him whittle it down to 2.40 while upping his save percentage to .918. The 6-5, 180-pound Quinnipiac commit's overall record of 22-10-0-2 was helped by a 6-1-0-1 run during that time. Petruzzelli is commonly projected to be the first goalie off the board in the 2017 NHL draft, likely selected in the early second round.
Andrei Svechnikov, who could very well be next summer’s top NHL draft pick continued to light up the scoreboard for Muskegon at right wing, surpassing other prolific scorers in just 48 games. Maintaining his impressive 1.21 points-per-game average, the a 6-2, 185-pound, 17-year-old Barnaul, Russia native potted 29 goals and 29 assists in just 48 games ending the season sixth in total points with 58. He also racked up 68 penalty minutes.
Notable players from other USHL teams:
Green Bay Gamblers (72 points)
18-year-old elite prospect Casey Mittelstadt, fifth among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings, continued to display the form that will likely see him as the first USHL player selected this June, potentially in the draft's top five. After returning from pursuing the Minnesota State Championship with Eden Prairie High, the University of Minnesota commit totaled five goals and four assists in just eight games, leading Green Bay's playoff push and ending the campaign topping the USHL with a 1.25 points-per-game average (13 G, 17 A, 24 games).
Connor Mackey is also a Gambler to watch after leading the league in scoring among defensemen with 47 points (6 G, 41 A) including a whopping 30 power play assists, by far the USHL leader in that category. Named Defenseman of the Week four times during the 2016-17 campaign. Also had 93 penalty minutes, good for eighth among USHL blueliners.
Considered a potential NHL starter and large in net at 6-3, 181 pounds, Russian Maksim Zhukov impressed with Green Bay (19-8-1-1, 2.25 GAA, .913 SV%) in his first USHL season. He’s considered the fifth-best goalie prospect according to Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings.
Team USA (49 points)
Brady Tkachuk strengthened his case for consideration as a high first round draft pick in 2018 with a productive March and April. Centering Team USA he landed five goals and two assists in eight games and racked up another 20 penalty minutes while closing out the schedule. The 6-2, 194-pound younger brother of Matthew, son of NHL-legend Keith, and Boston University commit tallied 12 goals and 11 assists in 24 USHL contests, and 22 goals with 25 assists in 53 games of U.S. National U18 Team play in 2016-17, along with 180 penalty minutes in 77 games between both.
Left wing Grant Mismash had a good March with two goals and nine assists. Considered a likely late first to early second round NHL draft pick this June, the University of North Dakota commit totaled eight goals and 16 assists in 26 USHL games, and 23 goals with 29 assists in 57 contests with the US Under-18 squad, amassing 134 penalty minutes between both. 30th among North American skaters in Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings.
6-1, 192-pound center Josh Norris scored at a point-per-game clip this campaign (1.01) in his time between the USHL (12 G, 14 A, 25 games) and U.S. National U18 Team (24 G, 29 A, 53 games). Stands at 47 in Central Scouting’s NA Midterm Rankings.
Lincoln Stars (70 points)
Cayden Primeau had a tough year, finishing at 14-11-1-1 with a 3.16 GAA and .895 SV%. The son of 15-year NHL vet Keith Primeau has scouts raving as he profiles as a future NHL starter, but the Northeastern University commit clearly needs to develop further. At 6-3, 177 pounds he is projected as a late second round 2017 NHL draft pick and ranked fourth among North American goalies in Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings
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