For the first time since 2013 both USHL Conference Finals are headed to a decisive game 5. The Dubuque Fighting Saints and Bloomington Thunder will battle it out for Eastern Conference supremacy, while the Tri-City Storm and Waterloo Black Hawks will fight to decide who will represent the Western Conference in the Clark Cup Final.
The Eastern Conference Final has been back and forth, as both teams have one once at home and once on the road. The Saints took Games 1 and 3, while the Thunder have rallied to tie the series twice in Games 2 and 4, including an overtime win last Saturday to send the series back to Dubuque. For the Fighting Saints this is the second consecutive season they’ve faced a fifth and final game in the Eastern Conference Final. They are looking to avenge last season’s Game 5 loss to the Muskegon Lumberjacks, who then advanced to the Clark Cup Final. The last time Dubuque won Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Final was, ironically, the last time both conferences had decisive games in their series – 2013. Dubuque knocked off the Youngstown Phantoms to head to the Clark Cup Final and went on to claim the 2013 Clark Cup.
A Game 5 in a Conference Final may be new territory to Dennis Williams and the Bloomington Thunder, but they certainly are familiar with the scenario, as they knocked off the top-seeded and Anderson Cup champion Cedar Rapids RoughRiders with a 5-2 road victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal. The Thunder appear well-versed in preparing for and winning Game 5 road contests.
This series also features the top two scorers in Clark Cup Playoffs. Both Keegan Ford of Dubuque and Jake Slaker of Bloomington have scored 12 points each in the postseason. Ford has scored seven points in the series (4 G, 3 A), including the game-winning goal in Dubuque’s Game 1 victory, a game in which he tallied two goals and added two assists. He also has a goal in each of the last two games of the series. As for Slaker, he has a goal in two of the last three games. He has created some great opportunities as well, as he has 11 shots on goal in the series.
As for the Western Conference, the way the series has shaped up has been very similar to the Eastern Conference, as both teams have won once at home and once away from home. The top-seeded Storm picked up shutout wins in Games 1 and 3, while the third-seeded Black Hawks responded twice to even the series with wins in Games 2 and 4. Neither team has faced a Game 5 yet this postseason, as the Storm swept the Sioux Falls Stampede in the Western Conference Semifinals, and Waterloo dispatched of the second-seeded Lincoln Stars in four games.
For the Storm, Jake Kielly has been outstanding between the pipes. He has a 5-2 record this postseason with a 1.58 GAA and .952 SV%, both of which are leaps and bounds the best numbers by any goaltender in Clark Cup Playoffs. He has three shutouts in the postseason as well, including two in this series. The Storm are led offensively by Carson Meyer, who is the top playoff scorer on the team and the fourth leading scorer in playoffs. He is also the leading playoff scorer in this series. Meyer has at least a point in every game of the series, including a two-point performance in Game 4. He has five goals and four assists in seven playoff games this season. The Storm are looking to advance to their first Clark Cup Final since 2004, when they were, ironically enough, defeated by Waterloo in four games (Waterloo changed conferences prior to the 2011-12 season).
The Black Hawks are looking to advance to their first championship series since 2014, when they fell in a decisive Game 5 to the Indiana Ice. They are also looking to win their first Clark Cup since 2004. Nick Swaney has been on a tear as of late for P.K. O’Handley’s club, as he is the leading Waterloo scorer in the playoffs. The University of Minnesota Duluth commit had a four-point game in the Black Hawks 7-4 Game 4 victory. Swaney netted a hat trick in the game, and he has five points in four games in the series. Captain Ronnie Hein is the next top scorer for Waterloo with six points (3 G, 3 A). In net, while Kielly has been getting the attention, and rightfully so, Cale Morris has been solid in his own right for Waterloo. The Notre Dame commit has posted a 2.32 GAA and a .919 SV% in eight playoff games, and he will look to backstop his team to their second championship series in three years.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.
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